Alright, I'll admit it…when I was in high school, I was one of those geeky kids with a small circle of fellow social outcasts as friends. In that most charming of high school traditions, one simply didn't talk with someone not in your clique; as a result, I left high school knowing perhaps ten people. I can only imagine how my teenage years would have been different—but probably no less misspent—had there been online social networking systems like Friendster or orkut. I would have had an instant network of friends of friends, all of whom would surely be my friend too!
Social networking systems (SNS) are intriguing, particularly once you start playing the "six degrees of separation" game. LinkedIn, for example, lets you look for other members who worked for the same employer you did. Of course, in order for me to see if there are any former colleagues in LinkedIn, I have to provide information about my past employment on my public profile. (However, there is no fact-checking. If I were an unscrupulous competitive intelligence researcher and wanted to identify current employees of a target company, I could just plug the target company name in my profile and, bingo! Up pops a list of current and former employees.)
I find two aspects of these SNS particularly intriguing. First, as I figured out fairly quickly, the information listed in these networks is no more reliable than your average personal ad. What does provide validation is the number of people who link to you—that is, who provide external verification that you are who you say you are. In fact, there is a specific option to "endorse" someone else's credentials in LinkedIn. A similar dynamic is what enables some people to make a good living on eBay. You may not know anything about CatahoulaMama1994, but she's a Power Seller and she has a Positive Feedback score of 95.8%, so she's worth trusting with your credit card.
It will be interesting to see the impact of this type of a reliability gauge on information consumers' ability to determine the accuracy and/or bias of something they read. Most info pros are accustomed to looking for the brand label when evaluating an information source. Is this from an established publisher? Is this an op-ed piece or hard journalism? Do I know the background of this blogger? Is this speaker really an expert in the field or just a blow-hard? Instead, will people assume that a Web report is reliable if it's been linked to by 15 bloggers?
The other intriguing aspect of SNS is the assumption that there is a single type of relationship between two people. You're either "friends" or you're not, and if you are my friend, then I will probably find something in common with your friends and your friends' friends. However, most SNS are comprised of business associates, colleagues, clients, as well as of friends. One reason why I have not invited all my friends, colleagues, clients, and dogsitters to join my online social network is that the likelihood of any of them being interested in the social network of each other isn't much higher than random chance.
But perhaps this is just old-person thinking. I have been reading articles about the etiquette of cell phone usage among high school students, particularly in Japan where short text messaging (STM) is tremendously popular. Kids often exchange 30 or 40 text messages a day as they discuss where to meet, what to do, or whether another friend should be invited to that party tomorrow night. (For links to a few interesting articles, see www.batesinfo.com/cellphones.html.) This ability to stay in touch with a wide range of friends may help to break down some of the walls we maintain between our various social circles.
What this also suggests is that we have a generation that expects to do much more of its communicating and information-gathering through cell phones. Once they hit the workforce, they will expect to text message an info pro to ask for in-depth information on trends in the space tourism industry. Those of us long-time librarians who remember what a "reference interview" was are wondering where we can take a course in cell phone speed thumb-typing, so we can actually have interaction with our mobile clients. (And I wonder whether we will be able to resist the urge to—radical notion here—dial the phone and have a live conversation with the client about her information needs.)
What I think is most intriguing about both SNS and STM is that interactions between people are becoming more dispersed, more synchronous, and more driven by connections among people rather than on more formal structures. Can you deliver answers to your clients in under 160 characters? How we info pros will interact with both information and our clients is bound to change radically over the next few years. How big is your social network? How fast are you with typing on your cell phone?