Friday, December 03, 2004

The Zeroes at ZeroDegrees

The Zeroes at ZeroDegrees

There’s a new trend on the Web called social networking. Various sites such as Friendster, LinkedIn, Ryze, Huminity, and ZeroDegrees provide Web-based networking tools that enable people to find other people with similar interests. Some sites, like Friendster, end up being glorified pickup joints for horny folks. Others, like LinkedIn and ZeroDegrees, are places where business people can find opportunities.

Generally the way the business networking sites work is you join and then do searches for other people based on keywords they may have in their profiles. Some sites allow you to set up Webpages to talk about your interests, and some, like Ryze, also host discussion forums where you can virtually meet others who share your interests.

The business model for social networking sites is not very well defined at this point. Although some have adopted a paid membership model and others use advertising, the basic model appears to be to offer a free service to bring in the masses and try to get members to upgrade to a paid service that offers more functionality.

Social networking sites attempt to be viral by constantly reminding you to invite your friends and associates to join. And this is where I ran into trouble with ZeroDegrees.

When I joined LinkedIn, the site offered to upload my contacts from my Outlook address book and do two things: let me know how many of my contacts were already on the service, and let me easily send invitations to associates I thought would benefit from the service. This worked pretty well. I found a surprising number of my contacts were already on the service, and I sent out a half dozen or so invitations to people I thought might be interested, many of whom accepted and joined the service.

So when I joined ZeroDegrees and they offered to upload my contacts and help me invite contacts to join, I foolishly figured it would work the same way as LinkedIn. The process started the same way, with a little program you run that uploads your contact info. However, the whole thing went horribly wrong because of poorly designed software.

Instead of allowing me to select which contacts I invited into the network, the ZeroDegrees software sucked all the contacts from not only my main address book in Outlook, but also my backup versions as well! Then it proceeded to email every one of them with an invitation to join. I tried in vain to stop this, but it churned through more than 8,000 names in its zealous quest to spam everyone I know. Many of my contacts got multiple emails because they were on my main and backup contact lists. What a nightmare!

This all happened this past spring, and I’ve been apologizing to folks I know ever since.

I think social networking is a very useful tool in expanding your network and locating resources and advice on a wide range of topics. But people like ZeroDegrees can give the concept a bad name.

There need to be some safeguards in place for social networks, especially when you entrust them with the names of your contacts. I no longer, for example, belong to Plaxo, which helps you keep your contacts updated, because I was worried about what they may be doing with the information I stored on their service.

And then there’s the ethical question of entrusting the contact information of people you know or who you may have only casually met to a third party. What happens if the network closes down, or is sold to another company? What happens to all that information? It’s bad enough when it’s only your own privacy that’s concerned. But when it’s the privacy of people who have not consented to having their information share in the first place, it becomes a different issue.

All it would take to really put the kibosh on the social networking phenomenon would be to have one of the networks sell personal information to just one spammer.

If social networks and similar services become tainted with the stain of spam, they won’t flourish. But if they continue to provide strong tools and incentives to create online and offline communities, they’ll continue to be one of the fastest growing online phenomena.

Briefly Noted

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  • The Raw File – In a recent SNS I commented that I had 40 pages of material waiting to get into an SNS issue. Well, upon looking it over, I decided much of it was past its freshness date. Since SNS is dedicated to delivering the scoop on the latest and greatest, this stuff no longer qualifies. However, on the off chance that there are Alert SNS Readers out there who just can’t get enough, I’ve collected all this aging info into a page called The Raw File. This page is the raw information I gather for SNS articles. It’s not pretty, and some may be a little incoherent, but chances are there are still things in TRF that might be news to you. So therefore, use The Raw File at your own risk – it’s 35+ pages of the best stuff from 2003 that didn’t make it into SNS. The Raw File
  • Speaking of Portals: I recently wrote a little ditty on a social networking site about the ill-defined concept of Web portals. Here’s an excerpt: [The portal concept is ill-defined and hard for business people to understand], but not only because portals’ “value propositions” are so technical. That’s part of it, but I think one of the bigger problems with portals as a business solution is the terrible fuzziness of the term’s definition. Many people [. . .] think of portals as a bunch of links. Others think of them as the Web front end to whatever software they’re selling. Still others see them as simply a front end to a major search capability. Like CRM, the term portal is many things to many people, or even everything to everyone. I see a Web portal primarily as a way to collect a multitude of interactive capabilities in a single UI. A business portal, on the other hand, is much more. It is a way to integrate applications and data that business people need to use every day to do their jobs. Some of the more important capabilities include the ability to author pages, to share information (file libraries, discussion groups), to control access to information, and to immediately locate relevant information (search capabilities, RSS newsfeeds.) The average business person is awash in information. Making sense and deriving context from this information is a critical need as is the ability to communicate insights gleaned from the information ocean. One of the most fascinating commentaries on the Richard Clarke 9/11 flap was from an observer who noted that there were probably a dozen or more single issue Cassandras like Clarke running around the government wailing about the clear and present danger of their pet worry: “Arrrgh! Global warming!” “Aaaah! The North Koreans!” Eiiee! Hamas!” What the Bush administration obviously failed to do was to extract the signal from that noise and realize the significance and immediacy of the Al Queda threat. The problem is obviously knowledge management: knowing not only what you know (tough in large corporations), but the context and significance of what you know. That’s why the knowledge-based portal we are developing, MAX K-Base (, will be integrating a world class knowledge engine in its next iteration. Rather than being a fairly dry and academic exercise in taxonomies and hierarchies, knowledge management must be useful and pertinent to business users. And that’s, IMHO, where the promise of portals can help.