The road to the perfect social network will be paved with the discarded corpses of networks past. Which is precisely why we need more of them.
Yesterday, my inbox was besieged with over 40 emails in less than four hours, all from Potluck, a new link-sharing social network from the team behind Branch. While nobody enjoys being spammed, I noticed that the names in each of the notification emails weren't strangers, bots, or friend-happy "gurus," but actual trusted acquaintances. Turns out I'd met most of them in person or we'd at least had substantial interaction over Twitter. The friend requests read like a "best of" of my Twitter social graph. I accepted every one.
This is a growing trend with the new social networks I join. Each time another one pops up, it's easier to cobble together new cliques of internet friends and acquaintances and whittle out unnecessary accounts from other social feeds like Twitter and Facebook. There's a great deal of repetition, but it's also a chance to easily cut out the noise or irrelevance that tends to plague older social graphs — another chance at creating "the perfect feed."
It's now easier than ever to assemble a graph online. That's why the Snapchats, WhatsApps, and Vines of the world are able to appear seemingly out of nowhere: They represent a second (or third, or fourth) draft of your previous connections, a crude evolution of your online ecosystem where each version is a little different and a little better than the last. Just as we're never going to stop building and pruning our social connections in the real world, we'll never stop finding a better social group online.
There's a good and an easy case to be made that there are way too many social networks out there. Tech journalists roll eyes daily at pitches heralding secondary social networks that artlessly graft features from prominent social networks onto a new skin ("it's like Pinterest for dogs!"). Even the most casual of internet users probably has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 social media accounts, if you include email.
Yet just as quickly as they're conceived and then hyped, social networks fall into obscurity, become "uncool," and die. None are immune — not even Facebook. Facebook's power is in its graph; it was the first of its kind, giving users a good approximation of their actual, real-life friendships, real names and all. But Facebook is getting old, and so is its graph. For the select group that's been on Facebook nearly a decade, the social graph has become more like a social time capsule than an accurate representation of their lives. For some, nostalgia is a draw. But as more of the daily minutiae of our lives are lived online, immediate relevancy has never been more compelling — or important.
And that's what makes moments like yesterday's matter, and why the sign-up process and social structure of a new service is so important. Founder Josh Miller articulated this to GigaOm yesterday in an interview, asking, "Will it take longer for us to grow because it's not a follower model? Yes, but I think in the long run it's going to be a lot more powerful and defensible and unique."
Miller seems to understand that it's all about the graph, and that everything else is icing. It's why Twitter hasn't taken off for a lot of my non-journalist/news junkie friends and relatives, and why I rarely think to log onto Pinterest. In reality, it's less about the service than the people who want to use it, and their immediate relation to you. Features matter more in terms of who they'll attract relative to you than what you'll get out of them directly.
At a lecture a few weeks back, Google's Eric Schmidt was asked by a frustrated developer how young entrepreneurs are expected to pony up the cash to build a successful tech product in an increasingly crowded investment landscape. In an evening full of boring stock answers from the Google chairman, his answer was brutally honest. "Building isn't expensive, attention is," he told the developer. "In this business, the core scarcity is attention." When it comes to social networks, attention is best won creating useful, and most importantly, familiar environments.
For Potluck, that crucial moment is playing out right now, as users begin to construct new friend graphs and feeds. For some, the notification emails may just be added noise to an already crowded room. For others, it could be the perfect shot to cut the fat and build their ideal network. Or, at least, a more perfect one.