Of social networks and cable TV

This week’s Economist features a brief analysis of the social networking boom and where it all might lead. Some interesting parallels were brought to the fore. Among them:

  • AOL’s acquisition of Bebo is much like Microsoft’s acquisition of Hotmail a decade ago.
  • And that the network effect still holds.

Social networks as they are now constructed are walled gardens – LinkedIn users cannot communicate with Facebook users. Users typically receive invites from colleagues on multiple networks. Fragmenting a user’s network diminishes its value.

The article ends with an interesting twist – that all the social networking we need is contained in our email clients, address books, and calendars.

That is because the extended in-box contains invaluable and dynamically updated information about human connections. On Facebook, a social graph notoriously deteriorates after the initial thrill of finding old friends from school wears off. By contrast, an e-mail account has access to the entire address book and can infer information from the frequency and intensity of contact as it occurs. Joe gets e-mails from Jack and Jane, but opens only Jane’s; Joe has Jane in his calendar tomorrow, and is instant-messaging with her right now; Joe tagged Jack “work only” in his address book. Perhaps Joe’s party photos should be visible to Jane, but not Jack.

This kind of social intelligence can be applied across many services on the open web. Better yet, if there is no pressure to make a business out of it, it can remain intimate and discreet. Facebook has an economic incentive to publish ever more data about its users, says Mr [David] Ascher [a Mozilla manager], whereas Thunderbird, which is an open-source project, can let users minimise what they share. Social networking may end up being everywhere, and yet nowhere.

Everywhere and nowhere. This got me thinking about cable television providers as we move into the IP-delivery era. Clinging to the walled garden approach will lessen the value of cable distribution networks. Letting viewers aggregate content from multiple sources will be more profitable. Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner need only look at last decades big walled gardens — AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy. How are they doing now?

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