Social Networking: Modern Tulip Mania?

Robert Cringely recently posted a column in which he compared social networking to CB radio: a currently-popular activity that is destined to crash and burn. Cringely (and follow-on commenters like Steve Hodson) have certainly identified many of the pitfalls of social networking on today’s internet: the lack of a business model, the annoyance factor, the rapid proliferation of networks, and the one-way hype emanating from the A-listers.

I wonder, though, whether the 17th-century Dutch tulip mania might be a more reasonable analogy for social networks as they currently stand. In that era, as you’ll recall, people bid up tulip prices to an unreasonable level, on the basis that everyone else was doing this and it was a great way to make money. Of course, the market was eventually unsustainable and there was a huge crash in tulip prices when the bubble burst and traders realized that a tulip bulb was not really worth 25 times as much as a ton of butter to most people.

Looking at social networking from the inside, it seems to share a lot of “mania” characteristics. When you’re on the inside, there’s nothing more important than being a part of the current hot network and pulling in everyone else you know. For those not directly involved, though, social networks appear to be some strange activity that makes no sense. We see this tension at WWD whenever we spend too much time talking about Twitter or Facebook or Linked-In or whatever: some people give us grief in the comments for wasting time on trivia.

Social networks represent an economy, not so much of money, but of attention. Right now they’re sucking down more and more attention from people as they grow, making it harder to focus on other things. Will we reach the point where the average user pulls back and says “whoa, what was I thinking?” Could there be an “attention crash” or the bursting of an “attention bubble” that would reduce social network activity to much lower levels?

I don’t know, but judging by the way that SXSW Interactive is filling up the networks that I’m a part of at the moment, any bursting is still a ways off. The people on the inside are as deeply involved as ever, and the excitement is still there. Sometimes I just wonder what it’s feeding on.

What about you? Has social networking become an important (or overwhelming?) part of your life? Are you ready to declare social network bankruptcy and back off? Do any of your networks actually contribute to your web working life? Or is this all one big blast of irrelevance?

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