The only real social networks are personal ones

Should Brands Join or Build Their Own Social Network? is the question Jeremiah Owyang raised yesterday on Twitter and in facebook. If you’re a facebook member, you can participate. I am a member, but I’d rather not. At least, not there.

All due respect (and I respect Jeremiah a great deal), I’d rather talk outside the facewall.

Forgive me for being an old fart, but today’s “social networks” look to me like yesterday’s online services. Remember AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve and the rest? Facebook to me is just AOL done right. Or done over, better. But it’s still a walled garden. It’s still somebody’s private space. Me, I’d rather take it outside, where the conversation is free and open to anybody.

So here’s what I think.

First, I’m not sure a “brand” can get social at all. The term was borrowed from the cattle industry in the first place, and will never escape that legacy, now matter how much lipstick we put on the branding iron.

Second, the notion of “brands” either “building” or “joining” social networks strikes me as inherently promotional in either case, and therefore compromised as a “social” effort. Speaking personally, I wouldn’t join a social network any brand built, and I wouldn’t want any brand trying to join one I built. But that’s just me. Your socializing may vary. (And, by the way, if I wear a t-shirt with some company’s name on it, that doesn’t mean I belong to that company’s “network”. All it means for sure is that I’m wearing a t-shirt that was clean that morning. It might mean I like that company or organization. At most it means I have some kind of loyalty — although in the cases of sports teams and schools, the loyalty and sense of affiliation is not to a “brand”, unless you insist on looking at everything in commercial terms, one of which “brand” is. My main points here are that, a) there may be less to expressions of apparent loyalty than it may appear, and b) the social qualities of affection, affiliation or belonging mostly don’t derive from “branding” in the sense that Procter & Gamble began popularizing the term back in the 1930s.)

Third, I’m not sure social networks are “built” in any case. Seems to me they’re more organic than structural. Maybe I’m getting too academic here, but I don’t think so. Words have meanings, and those meanings matter. When I think about my social networks — and I have many — I don’t see them as things, or places. I see them as collections of people I know. The best collections of those for me aren’t on facebook or LinkedIn. They’re in my IM buddy list and my email address book. Even if I can extend those two lists into a “social graph” (a term that drives me up a wall), and somehow federate them into these mostly-commercial things we call “social networks” on the Web, I don’t see those “networks” as structures. I see them as people. Huge difference. Critical difference.

Fourth, the thing companies need to do most is stop being all “strategic” about how their people communicate. Stop running all speech through official orifices. Some businesses have highly regulated speech, to be sure. Pharmaceuticals come to mind. But most companies would benefit from having their employees talk about what they do. Yet there are still too many companies where employees can’t say a damn thing without clearing it somehow. And in too many companies employees give up because the company’s communications policy is modeled on a fort, complete with firewalls that would put the average dictatorship to shame. If a company wants to get social, they should let their employees talk. And trust them.

Bottom line: companies aren’t people. If you like talking about your work, and doing that helps your company, the “social network” mission is accomplished. Simple as that.

One last thing. I’m not saying facebook or LinkedIn are bad. They can be useful for many things, and their leaders deserve kudos for the successes they’ve earned. Still it creeps me out when people treat facebook as “The Web, only better”. It ain’t the Web and it ain’t better. It’s a new, interesting and widespread set of experiments, mostly in technology and business. I’m interested in seeing where it goes. But I’m not drinking the kool-aid.

67 comments

  1. links for 2007-12-21 « The social media revolution (in 15 minutes)’s avatar

    [...] Doc Searls Weblog · The only real social networks are personal ones (tags: socialnetworks ningthing) [...]

  2. Answers Blog » Blog Archive » links for 2007-12-18’s avatar

    [...] The exclusive actual ethnic networks are individualized ones Great place by Doc. I conceive digit articulate that is absent is authenticity. Brands impact when they and the grouping behindhand them are authentic. (tags: brand2.0 marketing socialnetworks facebook) [...]

  3. Can you kiss a brand under the mistletoe? : Beyond Mom | Home of Martini Marketing’s avatar

    [...] Second, the notion of “brands” either “building” or “joining” social networks strikes me as inherently promotional in either case…(read full entry here) [...]

  4. ThinkingDifference’s avatar

    I see little point in Facebook if your own social network is not there already. If your social network is geographically spread, then Facebook aggregates info you would otherwise email. If your social network is spatially close to you, then Facebook aggregates notes for doing things and keeping in touch, just as with the phone.

    I guess another case is when you do not have a social network – or when you are looking to build one.

  5. Quotes for the week ending 22 Dec, 2007 «’s avatar

    [...] Doc Searls, on why he is not joining a debate on whether brands should build their own, or join social networks. [...]

  6. Hebben sociale netwerken een toekomst? | RecruitmentMatters’s avatar

    [...] van mijn iconen, Doc Searls (’The Cluetrain Manifesto’) stelt het als volgt:Facebook to me is […] a walled garden. It’s still somebody’s private space. Me, I’d [...]

  7. Chicana Feliz’s avatar

    Wrong, AOL was about meeting strangers because your friends and family still didn’t have access to email. Now the only good product AOL offers is not its browsers, that’s for sure, but honestly the iChat application on apple computers.
    That’s it.
    It competes with Skype and only because Apple has helped it out so much.

    In any case, Now, Facebook is about keeping strangers and strange people out. You obviously don’t have close friends because otherwise you’d know that.

    Honestly, there’s nothing more to say. That is what makes facebook awesome, its known, its faster than Myspace, and you choose if you want to screw with your page, otherwise, just reject the zombie application and you’ll be fine with a nice lite page that updates you on parties, groups, and tons of cool and interesting Real Life events, with only your closest friends or networks you left of people who were your closest friends, in say, academia.

  8. Welcome to the Fifth Estate » The Buzz Bin’s avatar

    [...] media (both content generators and casual readers) should be considered audiences, communities or just people! Ironically, this debate goes all the way back to the Cluetrain Manifesto and has superseded [...]

  9. (Audio) Social Networks: Should companies build their own or join existing ones (like Facebook)’s avatar

    [...] thought this heated debate was over, I took heat from Shel Israel and Doc Searls (look at all the trackbacks and comments) for my stance that in some situations, brands should [...]

  10. Bo’s avatar

    I agree with this post, it goes back to the origins of the net in a way – people swapping info in a non profit manner.

    However the whole brand concept (I’d never thought of the cattle!) is something that millions fall for. The question is – if they feel they can belong to a genuine social network that is also a brand, then their interpretation of this stands maybe?

  11. Free MySpace Train’s avatar

    Rewritten Article

    One of the best sources of advice I accept about this is right here.

    Keep blogging Thank you and all the best

  12. Online Local Marketing’s avatar

    I know facebook is a brand, but it’s used by so many different groups that I wonder if they do in fact compromise their individuality by communicating through such media? Compromising individuality is how I would define branding as in the ‘cattle branding’ you talk about.

  13. Birmingham Health and Safety Consulatant’s avatar

    Surely the best way forward is to integrate Internet and human social networks? The net makes it easier to connect with others, but it’s unsustainable unless we have some form of human interaction to support this.

    We are all so overloaded with information these days that actually talking to other people in person or by phone is massively more effective than twitter, email, facebook etc

  14. Daniellle’s avatar

    I agree with you Doc, face book and other social media pages have become a sort of media conspiracy, it has changed allot over the past few years from a purely social media to a advertising media and I am afraid to see what will happen in the future. Thanks for the post it was enjoyable reading..

  15. Linda from Social Media Jazz’s avatar

    I think facebook appeals to the “me too” and “look at me” psychology of branding and that’s why it works. Shallow? Surely not ;)

  16. kevin’s avatar

    The web isn’t just the FaceBook or twitter it’s a massive exchange of information and ideas, it’s the single most important invention in the world today.
    Some want to turn it in to a shopping centre some want for recreation, but it’s not, it’s the free exchange of information and ideas that make the web what it is a free and open place.

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