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I'm a partner in the advanced analytics group at Bain & Company, the global management consulting firm. My primary focus is on marketing analytics (bio). I've been writing here (views my own) about marketing, technology, e-business, and analytics since 2003 (blog name explained).

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October 24, 2009

Activating Latent Social Networks

This morning via TechCrunch  I read Sean Parker's Web 2.0 Summit presentation materials, in which he says that the future belongs to "network services" that connect people, like Facebook, and not to "information services" that connect us to data, like Google.  My experiences at Contact Networks taught me to think of email patterns as proxies for social networks.  So, the following idea occurred to me.

Google has Gmail.  Google allows people to publish profiles.  What if Gmail had a button that allowed me to "recognize" a recipient by linking to his / her public profile when I send an email to him / her?

If I have a public profile and the recipient has one too, by pressing this "recognize" button I would make our relationship "provisionally acknowledged" (like a "friend request"); the link would become "acknowledged" if the recipient agreed.  Further, either side (with mutual agreement) could choose to "publish" this relationship in multiple social nets they participate in: Facebook, LinkedIn, Orkut, or they could even make it fully public.

The more two-way email traffic there is between the two users, the stronger the link is assumed by the service to be.  Note that this wouldn't be scored in a linear way.  Probably some sort of recency and frequency considerations would be involved, just as we had at Contact Networks.

Taking a page out of PageRank (pun partially intended), the scoring algorithm could also consider the popularity of the URLs I associated with my Google profile to consider the "centrality of my node" in the uber-network, and therefore the "value" of my "acknowledgements", when given.  Link-love could be configured by each user to be given by-the-message or by default to different email recipients.  Recipients could also "transfer" this link-love, with permission, to their other web presences (e.g., blogs).

The idea isn't limited to the major mail platforms, either.  Any media firm with an online community has a latent social network that could be defined by the response patterns in forum posts.  Users wouldn't experience the pain and inconvenience of joining YASNS, just a minor modification -- perhaps a welcome one, if accompanied by a little extra valuable information -- to how they interact already in the communities they belong to.  "Activating" such social networks through mechanisms similar to the ones described above would enhance the viral marketing potential of the communities, which would appeal to advertisers.

Since basically everyone uses email, doing this would also "democratize the social graph".  What I mean is that today there are two kinds of networks.  Either they are private -- owned and run by Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. -- or they are "public-but-elite", defined by the link structure of the Web.  In the former case, if amigo ergo sum ("I friend therefore I am"), I exist at Facebook's whim.  In the latter case, only folks who take the time to establish a public web presence and get linked to (say, through a blog, or a social net public profile) exist.  (Reminds me of Steve Martin's excitement at making it into the phone book in The Jerk.)  An open, more inclusive social graph mechanism than either of these currently provides would help bridge the digital divide, among other benefits.

Who's doing this?  The idea isn't entirely original.  Partially relevant: Facebook has just updated its News Feed to consider interactions between users as inputs for how to filter items to each user.  I'm sure this must have occurred to the major portals with email services.  Seems like a natural feature for Google Wave, for example, though I haven't seen it.  Surely (as with Contact Networks) it's also valuable to large organizations to establish "enterprise social networks", inside and beyond. 

Postscript: Gather.com CEO Tom Gerace commented they are working on a patent-pending capability they call PeopleRank that will do what I describe above in the online community section of this post. Google's been thinking about this for at least a year -- how come we haven't heard more yet?

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