Types of social networks

This is a part of the ongoing series of blog posts detailing how one should think about social features, and adding them to your product. Earlier, we discussed the social follow/friendship models, and where each one is applicable.

The models are not only interesting from a theoretical perspective, but also have deeper implications on the kind of network affiliations and bindings they enable. Depending on the kind of model the product designer decides to follow, creates either broader networks, or tighter ones.

For the purposes of this post, we will examine the difference between a broad social network and a vertical one. It is common to hear lots of companies and products say that they are creating a vertical social network. What do they really mean? Let’s first look at what a broad social network is, and then see where the verticals lie.

From wikipedia,

A social network is a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called “nodes”, which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.

Essentially, a social network consists of people connected to each other. Right? Well, yes and no. The definition is true, but it is not precise. People connected to other people because of social connections is one thing, but people connected to other people because of their own relationship to some content that both value is totally another. In that sense, Facebook started off as a true social network, while Twitter started off as an interest network.

These days, a typical social network starts by having users define their relationship first with content, and then have ‘better’ relationships with other people based upon the collection of content that might be interesting to both parties. When the field of content and the relationships one can have with this field is broad, we get a broad social network. However, restricting this field creates a vertical social network. Thus, vertical networks are, by definition, a subset of the possibilities of connections between not only people, but also between people and content.

So, why do people build vertical networks, when the field is limited? It’s kind of like the niche idea. By focusing on a specific area, products hope to achieve 2 primary goals:
1. more structured information about the field of content in question, and
2. better and more meaningful relationships between people based upon the exploitation of this structure in the content.

Since broad networks have mechanisms in place to interact with all kinds of content, they cannot add structured information about any specific area of content. For example, Facebook cannot allow us to interact with Restaurants in a restaurant-specific way, but must leave it open to accept a restaurant as just a place (categories do come in play, but only a little bit). This hole left by the dominant networks beckons to entrepreneurs with specific needs, and they try to create the vertical networks with structured information.

Note that we have only talked about the type of social networks in this post. Some people think that Twitter has defined the interest network, but I think they are not quite correct. It’s true that we follow some other people based upon our interest in the subject of what they are writing, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that twitter is also used more as a propaganda mechanism by marketers, and as a means of keeping in touch by other people. In either case, it doesn’t really satisfy the criteria of being an interest network.

If we were to define the relationship of a person with content to find out about their interest, then Google probably has the richest information available in the form of search. Of course, privacy concerns and laws prohibit them from leveraging that advantage fully for networks like Google+ (for example, G+ could suggest me people to follow based upon my recent searches. How useful that would be is anybody’s guess).

In the next post, we will look at the specifics of what it means to create a vertical social network and the challenges faced in doing so.


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