5 opportunities around social networks

In previous entries, I looked at the benefits and issues with social networks. As they move forward, here’s a list of opportunities relating to social networks.

5. Data Mining/Research

A main attribute of social networks is how much data people provide to them. On top of it, this data and the interaction of users on those networks. This is rich fodder for data mining. For example, researchers recently used Where’s George, a website tracking dollar bills in the real world, to assess how disease spreads. Similarly, LinkedIn provides its users with demographic/geographic data about members of your social network.

Traditional companies spend millions of dollars trying to understand the flow of people, flow of ideas (or memes) and how to exploit them. From Milgram’s small world experiment to the success of “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, there has been a fairly large body of research in this area but, for what may be the first time in history, there is now a heavy trove of data that can be analyzed.

4. Problem Solving

Sites like Google Answers are working on providing better answers to questions. Add-in some social network glue and one could be able to figure whether the person is a subject matter expert in the area he/she is answering the question about. For example, you might want to trust an individual with strong network ties in technology on questions related to technology but might be a little more wary of answers that person would provide about medical care (and similarly, you might trust a doctor more about medical care than you would a computer geek). Social networks, when seen through the lens of expertise, can provide quick access to answers from subject matter experts in one area. It is impossible to know everything but you might have a friend of a friend of a friend who has the answer in a specific area you are researching.

Similarly, social networks can provide a way to get social matter experts to connect and work collectively on difficult problems. When combined with digg-like features, social networks could become a way to speed up the vetting process on scientific publications by allowing a large set of peers to review articles and rank them according to value. This, in itself, could help humanity make radical moves forward in the area of scientific research.

Take, for example, my friends at ACOR who have been thinking of developing, in partnership with the National Cancer Institute, a data-mining system that analyzes information about patients to identify potential root cause for different cancers. Here, we see social networks (in this case, via mailing lists that are finely targeted) potentially being useful to help advance science and hopefully discover some root causes for cancer. A set of tools to such granular community could help a scientist, for example, sent a questionnaire to a sub-segment of the population to test a hypothesis (eg. “let’s see if people who have skin cancer and drank more than 1 glass of milk a day are reacting better to this type of drug?”) before deciding to do a clinical trial. If a specialized social network for such community was created, there might be no end to how much data could be gathered. Thing of it as a shotgun approach to medicine.

3. Marketing

Marketing, off course, is all about deep knowledge of the audience. The best way to market a message is to discover what motivates people and how to craft the message to match the motivations. When combined with the database of intentions, a social network can work as a set of focus groups for messages. Testing different messages on a narrow audience can allow people to better market their products.

2. Reputation Management

The old adage is that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is at the core of social networking. As more and more people are online and more and more interactions are happening between people with weak ties, assessing a person’s reputation is increasingly important. LinkedIn has keyed in on that effort by giving people the ability to “endorse” members of their social network, providing more information about how a person performed in a particular job. In a similar fashion, profiles no Ebay allow buyers and sellers to assess the track record of a buyer or seller before making a transaction. Endorsements by one’s strong ties generally reflects much higher than by someone you don’t know. Thus, social networks can work as the glue to reputation management. It is not enough for people to know that a person is seen as important by some random stranger but when one discovers that their friends or colleagues have endorsed a particular individual, they tend to trust those opinions more heavily.

Let’s take a pedestrian example: imagine you need to get some electrical work done in your house but don’t know any electricians. By looking at your social network, you could find such an expert with ease as the best electrician might be linked to your friends. In a way, social networks are just an extension of asking people for recommendations. Which brings me to the last opportunity on this list.

1. Recommendation

Recommendation is a very powerful driver to decision making: whether it is for hiring a person, picking a new product, or finding a general direction, humans tend to look to their existing network and do a subconscious “most-like” analysis of the information they receive. For example, Amazon has been very successful with the “people who bought this also bought…” and “people who looked at this also looked at…” features. As they gather more data, patterns emerge.

Similar approaches can be taken into the search space (where what people linked to or clicked on is ranked higher than other stuff) and in other areas like music (last.fm comes to mind) or other media consumption (for example, the success of aggregator like Digg, techmeme or tailrank can be attributed in large part to the need people have to know what other people think is good).

Conclusion

Social Networks should not really be a set of standalone tools but they are essential to building the next set of applications that leverage the power of the crowds. As such, social networking should be a feature and not an end-goal until itself. The companies that understand this basic rule will be the ones that succeed in that space, leveraging opportunities created by social networks in a fashion that will provide unprecedented benefits.

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