Five Things Social Networks Can’t Easily Do

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for davidstrom.jpgBy David Strom
You know that a technology is maturing when articles such as these start appearing. First is the infatuation stage, where the iPhone or Facebook or whatever can do everything for everyone. So I thought I would lead the charge and talk about the various limitations of different social networks that I use. You are of course welcome to send in your other frustrations.
Be a truly useful publishing platform. I want something that is better than an email list server that you as my readers have to remember to update your address and opt out when you are tired of hearing from me (I hope that day never comes, but I promise not to take it personally). I want something that I can target what I write to different affinity groups, without having to set up separate sub-lists. I want something that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg like iContact to track click-throughs on hot links that I so thoughtfully provide in the body of the message. I want something that the bad guys can’t easily compromise and send out spurious messages to my loyal readers. I know, I am asking for a lot.

There are a lot of contenders, including RSS feed-like elements of Plaxo, Facebook, FriendFeed, Twitter, and others, but they don’t deliver the goods, quite literally, aren’t flexible enough to do more than send link notifications (which isn’t as effective as email), and not everyone on my mailing list wants to use or even knows about these various technologies. Plus, none of these technologies really works as well as an email list for immediacy and response rates, which is why, when all is said and done, I am still using Mailman as my main distribution mechanism of my Web Informant newsletter and essays. (And hopefully will do a better job of backups, see last week’s missive for that tale of woe.)
Workable LinkedIn Groups. With triple opt-in, these are cumbersome at best, and annoying at worst. Ideally, LinkedIn could be my publishing platform, if only they could get their groups act together. But again, these rely on email notifications and only recently did LinkedIn add the ability to do threaded discussions.
Search, I still say that getting search right is the hardest thing about the Web 2.0 stuff, and most of the social networks give it short shrift. They all have some kind of search function, but they are designed for searching for names of people and not much else. LinkedIn has the ability to search for job function and location, and that is probably the one search function that I use more often. Try doing this in other services is more an exercise in frustration. To be truly useful, a social network should be able to create saved searches (you have to pay for this on LinkedIn by installing their spam-tool bar) that you can return to, or search for more recent updates to your network other than the default listing that is provided by the operator of the network. As an example, how about telling me who on my contact list has joined the network since my last login like Plaxo does in its weekly email update? To accomplish this query elsewhere takes many steps and is cumbersome.
Synchronize and update my Gmail contacts. With 9000 contacts, I know that the vast majority of them are outdated, but what can anyone do? Wouldn’t it be nice to synchronize all your social network contacts in the one place that you use them, which for me is Gmail? Sorry no can do kemosabe. Yes, Plaxo Pulse can import from Gmail but not the other way around. Cemaphore’s Mail Shadow G can synch Gmail and Outlook contacts, but that doesn’t really help me out. And while this is probably anecdotal, it seems that those people that update their contact info, the first place that they update it is in LinkedIn because this is the first step towards getting one’s job search act together.
Separate my work and personal identities. So much has been written about this warning people about the commingling of your play and work activities, I won’t add to it here. But, if you are concerned, you right now have not many choices: don’t include any personal information in your social network profile, or set up an alias and be selective about whom you invite to connect with you. Neither really works.
Are these all showstoppers keeping me from doing real productive things on social networks? Nope. But it would be nice to do more. And speaking of doing more, my podcasting partner Paul Gillin has electronic pre-release copies of his book “Secrets of Social Media Marketing” available on his Web site here, and you can pre-order the book as well.