You know something is happening when you get five separate requests from people you know--in a two-hour period, no less--to join a new networking service. So last night I gave in to peer pressure, and accepted the invitations to join LinkedIn, a new business-focused networking service developed by Reid Hoffman (formerly of Paypal).
I posted my first impressions over at Joi Ito's blog, but I thought I'd expand upon them a bit here.
The site has a nice look to it, and the interface is reasonably straightforward. But...it doesn't do much for me. I'm not really a "businessperson," I suppose, and maybe I'm missing the mark here. But I dislike being asked to draw these boundaries between my "social" interactions and my "business" interactions. My relationships are more fluid than that. How do I classify my relationship to people like Joi Ito and Marc Canter and Shelley Powers? Business associates? No. We've never "conducted business." Friends? Well, sort of. As much as you can be without ever having met someone in person. Colleagues? In a virtual, distributed way, maybe. Part of my social network? Absolutely! Valuable contacts for me in professional and personal contexts? For sure.
Friendster wants to be for dating and socializing. Group-formers and business people need not apply. (And their refusal to remove the often obscene BBS posting titles from the main page is a strong indication that they want to keep it that way.) LinkedIn wants to be for serious business networkers only. None of that fraternization stuff here. Neither one gives me the environment that I really want--a way to visualize my connections to the people I have relationships to, and build on those relationships to find connections to others.
Specifically, here's what I don't like about LinkedIn.
- I can't see people's pictures. No, this isn't a deal-breaker. But dammit, Adam's right. It's Friendster's killer app, and it's the one thing in that system that makes me go back to it again and again. At least one person has told me that this is to "discourage dating," which I find to be an unconvincing argument. We put photos of speakers on conference pages, and I doubt they get trolls for dates as a result. Context is everything.
- I can't browse the network. Specifically, I can't see my contacts' contacts. Why would I want to do that? No, not because I'm looking for a date. I'm happily married, thankyouverymuch. Because I want to understand the nature of the social networks I'm involved in. If I'm going to share my connection info with the system, I want it to give me something back. Let me see out to at least one degree of separation.
- The searching is seriously hampered by the fact that users can only declare themselves as part of one primary industry area. To accurately describe myself, I need to indicate higher ed and technology. And there are several areas of technology that are appropriate. Plus I'd like to throw my library science background in there. No can do. People have to pick one to search on, and I have to pick one to label myself with. That means lots and lots of people won't find each other.
- Once I've located a person I'm interested in contacting, and initiate the connection, it starts out fine. I tested this out with two people I know--one who was already a contact (Ross Mayfield), and one who was in the system but not yet explictly my contact (Pete Kaminski). I specify what kind of contact I want with Pete. It tells me the contact has to go through Ross (until that point, I don't know how Pete and I are connected.) Ross gets email telling him I want to make this contact to Pete. If he approves it, the request goes to Pete. Pete's interested, so he says "ok." Now, here's the fatal flaw. After Pete says yes--not before--the site tells me I have upgrade to get Pete's contact information. WTF??? This guy is sitting and waiting for me to complete the contact I've initiated. If I don't do it, I look like an idiot now. But to do it, I have to give money to LinkedIn. Bad, bad model. Left a very unpleasant taste in my mouth. Want to make money of the site? Fine. But don't make the most basic use of the system contingent on that money. Prove its worth to me first. Then give me a reason to want to upgrade.
Yes, I'm a curmudgeon. But I really am frustrated by this artificial categorization of my social network, and the barriers imposed by centralized systems that ask me to characterize for them the nature of my relationships, and then give me relatively little flexibility in how that information in used.
Adam Greenfield thinks there's still room for a hybrid that brings together the best of Friendster and LinkedIn (and Ryze, and...?). I'm increasingly unconvinced. The centralization is the problem. The system designers seem unable to keep themselves from imposing their view of how relationships are defined onto the users of the system. A decentralized approach would help reduce that problem. It would also address the problem of having to re-enter your personal data in every single new system, which is driving me nuts.
So I guess I'm slowly but surely being lured into the DigID discussions, which obviously impact on this whole issue of defining myself, and defining my connections. Once I get through the end of this quarter (two weeks and counting 'til the last exam is given!), I'll have to start digging a little deeper in that area.