When I was growing up as a nerdy teen on Long Island, needless to say I wasn't one of the Popular Kids. Back then we called it Junior High rather than the current appellation Middle School and now nerds are the new cool kids. In my youth, we didn't have reality shows where beauties met their geeks, Bill Gates hadn't yet gone to, let alone dropped out of college, and the Steves were still eating fruits rather than making Macs. We didn't even have computers, phones still had dials on them, and we all watched one of three network TV channels and read newspapers that came in the afternoon. And all of our parents bought American-made cars.
Ok, enough nostalgia. I give this as background, to explain my own behavior when I started getting involved in social networks. My first thought was to collect as many "friends" as I could, to grow my network quickly and add just about everyone that I had an email address for. Now that I have accumulated a bunch of people on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Plaxo, I have a different strategy.
I want quality rather than quantity. As my networks have grown – and they still aren't as large as my college-age daughter (see, it is that underdog feeling again) – I have seen the "feed" streams that are produced from all these people just burying me in the details and status updates of their lives. I try to dip into this vast, deep flow of information on a daily basis, but it quickly overwhelms me. I run back to the relative comfort of my email inbox, where at least I can hit the delete key and pare things down to a reasonable single screen of to-do and action items and people that I have to return messages to.
Burger King ran a promotion not too long ago where they asked people to defriend 10 Facebook friends in order to get a coupon for a free burger. They were swamped with thousands of requests, thereby establishing the value of a friend at somewhere around a quarter. That is pretty depressing. I always thought a friend was worth at least a couple of bucks, if not more.
I also want to grow my networks slower, because like anything else on the Internet, I am concerned about customer retention and my networks are my customers. You are the people that will (hopefully soon, puh-lease) pay me money to speak at a conference, write an article or white paper, produce a screencast video, or do some custom product consulting. So I don't want to just spam you with needless updates about what I had for breakfast or insights about my pets or family vacations, although I did get some interesting feedback when I mention the books that I read in my last missive.
So I have gotten pickier about who I add to my various networks. And while I don't want to be as snobby as that Jr. High clique of popular kids, I do think we all need to take a step back and consider what our friending – and more importantly defriending –policies will be going forward.
Over at Twitter (where my network is still "just" a few hundred followers), there is a lot of activity around third-party apps that will automatically increase your network with all sorts of tricks. This is a bad thing, because those networks become less valuable as their feeds become larger. You will be adding more noise to the signal, and as a result, miss out on the important stuff.
I am still figuring out Twitter, to say the least. But I can tell you that my Twitter activities have saved me a grand total of $140, which is the overdraft fee that Bank of America initially charged me when I deposited a check to the wrong account. Through the miracle of social networks, I was able to tweet my bank, email them the information and get them to call me and correct the problem, and probably keep me as a customer.
Now, I don't have all the answers here. Or even some of them. And I am glad that I don't have to deal with the hyper social strata that are Middle School today. But I can take some small comfort that none of my 20-something children have Twitter accounts, at least not yet.
David Strom is an expert on Internet and networking technologies who was the former editor-in-chief at Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com, and DigitalLanding.com. He currently writes regularly for PC World, Baseline Magazine, and the New York Times and is also a professional speaker, podcaster and blogs at strominator.com and WebInformant.tv