would you pay $5?

Folks keep asking me for my honest opinion on last evening’s MIT/Stanford Venture Lab panel and i keep avoiding this, but peer pressure works so well.

First, one must dissect the purpose of people’s attendance. In theory, the goal is to see a panel of experts talk about the business issues around the “social networking space” (even if some panelists want to pretend as though there is no “space”). I may not have an MBA or any entrepeneurial experience, but i’m not so naive as to think that there is any expert on the business end of this phenomenon. Everyone is riding on theories; there are no success stories to say how this is going to work, how this is going to make money. Since everyone’s bank rides on their theories, suddenly there are experts because when you lack data, you need to back your ideas with confidence so as to encourage others to do so as well, thereby increasing your likelihood of succeeding (business is a strange world to me).

Thus, we had a panel of five people who have a lot invested in making this work, and particularly in making this work for them.

Now.. let’s look at the audience. Why on earth would you pay $30 to hear a panel of people who have a lot invested banter about something that has yet to pan out? One of the audience members answered this reflection when she turned to the audience, asked how many grad students were in the room and whether or not they would pay $5 more to get a list of who was attending. The room was filled with people who also wanted to see and be seen. Of course, to be seen, you must also be heard, so most questions were also about being seen, not reflecting on what one was hearing.

[Of course, i’m a part of this absurdist drama as well since i went to watch and analyze and to show face given that i’ve been dreadfully busy. Plus, i wanted to get a sense of what was missing in preparation for the remake of this play on Sunday.]

Unfortunately, very little of the panel got into the content of the topic. Instead, it was a pure dance that would’ve made Goffman proud. The interaction ritual between panelists was full of snide remarks and ego cutting (or soothing); it was like watching a geek version of a wrestling match… (of course, i wonder whether it was more like the WWF than a set of professional wrestlers… performed or realistic spite?) I will say that Jonathan has become much better at responding to sarcastic cuts in kind and even better at dodging the opponents.

I should note that prior to the panel’s dance, Reid gave a 20 minute talk with interesting data for those who might know the space. In the talk, he had one nugget that got me thinking. He noted that Jonathan believed that people have one social network; Reid countered that they have multiple.

Perhaps those of you who know me know that their disagreement brings up one of my buzzwords in a flash: faceted. (Yes, yes, don’t roll your eyes.) People maintain a coherent social network. The multiple contexts in which we interact create facets in our social network that we know how to maintain quite meaningfully. We certainly reach out to different people for dates than we do for jobs, but that is not a segmentation of our network into convenient chunks. Instead, we manage what is appropriate when. We don’t want to maintain multiple networks; we want to maintain one network that we can facet as we see fit. This is a trick that no one in this “space” has figured out yet. This means that we don’t always want a public network, because we’re not always willing to collapse those facets. (More to come on this topic, i’m sure…)

Anyhow, as you can see, i quite enjoyed myself, but i always do enjoy good entertainment full of outrageous actors and an interactive audience.

Oh, and in case you want to actually know more about the content, Stewart Butterfield is far more concrete than i have been.

Other versions of commentary:
Marc Canter (with shameful pictures of moi)
Ross Mayfield
CBS Marketplace

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5 thoughts on “would you pay $5?

  1. Marc Canter

    One of the unfortunate side effects of Tony Perkins acting like a clown and wasting all our time speculating – is that Abrams got to cop an attitude and avoid every question put to him. Saying that the venue “was not an approrpiate place to discuss business models” – when in fact, the theme of the eveings was “what’s the business model” was rather amazing. But by far, the most significant thing that came out of his mouth was when he said “social networking is just a technology.” Now I’m all for understanding trends versus markets, and in fact – I fell into that same quagmire way back when – with the so-called multimedia marketplace, but what’s so significant about calling social networking “just technology” is that it ignores – guess what? The humans. This is something the VCs will never understand. As many times as Ross mentioned Metcalfe’s Law – it went in one ear and out the other. As you heard Andrew Anker say: “it’s about cost of acquisition and what you can make by exploiting those people.” That’s what Tuesday night was all about – making money. Nothing wrong with that, just keep it in perspective. these people don’t care about us – just making money.

  2. the iCite net development blog

    Social networks facets

    In this same post, danah discusses ideas about whether people have one social network or many, and she puts forth the concept that people have (or like to have) a single social network that they can facet as they see fit. I like danah’s concept a lot

  3. kevin rogers

    I agree with the idea of one social network with many facets. Having more than one network to me is equivalent to having more than one personality. Not impossible, but not typical. That got me to thinking about why we have to expend all that energy on juggling our connections. Why have multiple profiles on Friendster. Why not tell your mom what you saw at the Folsom Street Fair. Why not discuses with your classmates or coworkers your views on God.

    I blame “them” and their categorization addiction. It is such a strong force in all the people we connect with, that to break or violate an established categorization is a serious taboo. To manage the categories our friends and family and coworkers and everyone else puts us in, requires the creation of facets.

    This would imply people that broadened their categorization of us, like close friends, would allow consolidation of facets. I am also guessing that if you were to eliminate your use of facets, that would so break social expectations that you would be viewed as unstable, and ironically, possessing of multiple personalities.

    Maybe Sybil was just rotten at managing her social network. If only there had been groupware around to help her with it.:)

  4. Ross Mayfield

    Marc, am I one of “these people”?

    Yes, the showmanship took center stage instead of the business models and social networking.

    danah, I have to disagree with you.

    Most people attend these events for the networking first, content second. Especially in the current economy.

    There is nothing wrong with spaces or categorizations. Competition clusters around opportunity. In the absence of connections nodes are state attractors. If its a Bubblet, fine, just recognize it and plan accordingly.

    Nobody is an expert in something new.

    Good entreprenuers experiment at the margin. They start with theory, test it in practice, iterate. All whitepace markets are heavy in theory initially. If there is a first mover advantage, its having a base of knowledge and skills to begin with (good team) and then iterating theory into practice. Those in practice have more data, can discount risks and are in a better position to forecast (theorize) from the bottom up.

    Im a believer in your faceted/skitzo theory. But while users begin with many facets, starting a service with multiple facets has significant drawbacks, namely fragmenting network liquidity. Seems to make sense to serve one facet well and iterate towards others provided your brand and service architecture can handle it.

  5. Ronald A Fisher

    In social networks, it is people who are the vertices and the messages that are the nodes.

    i am a leaf upon the water
    tides and currents push/pull me along
    i am creation’s son and daughter
    I am the bed you lie upon

    so draw me your pictures, speak me your speech
    i’ll juxtapose them each to each
    i’ll open my heartbeat, i’ll listen for yours
    ’till our lives pass along to the final pause

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