Back in the pre-Web 2.0, pre-Web 1.0, pre-World Wide Web, and even pre-AOL, there were Bulletin Board Systems (BBS): isolated archipelagos of folks who shared their interests in forums and chat rooms to the point of obsessiveness. Like any isolated culture, each BBS evolves its own feel, with folks naturally gravitating to a certain form of behavior. And all was good in the world.
In the late 80's/early 90's, BBS operators started to connect their BBS'. Suddenly, you had an influx of new users participating in forums, violating unspoken rules and taboos, and the first "flame wars" erupted. Longtime BBS users were turned off: their vibrant forums were descending into annoyance, and their primary goals of connecting with like-minded folks were being thwarted. BBS participation started to drop. What to do?
BBS system operators ("Sysops") saw the threat to their nascent network, precursors of today's Web, and decided to take action. They drafted a set of guidelines for participation, to help new users ("newbies"), as well as establishing a clear set of rules that sysops could enforce. This BBS etiquette, or "netiquette," usually governed personal contact or posting rules, and sysops warned and booted repeated violators. And all was well in the world...at least until that pesky Web sprung up and crushed those BBS' out of existence. ;-)
Fast forward to today's hottest Web properties, social networks, and you can see the exact same issues developing. Each of the major social networks evolved to address a particular niche:
- MySpace for music lovers and young teens
- Facebook for alumni and shared interest groups
- LinkedIn for business networking
- Plaxo Pulse for people you actually know
Each of these networks has seen their growth skyrocket when they open the service up and it drives hordes of new users to join. As those new users eclipse the old-timers, the unwritten rules get trampled. Facebook becomes a site for people to prospect for jobs. LinkedIn becomes a haven for recruiters. Plaxo becomes a bac'n generator (some would argue it already was). At this rate, folks will get turned off and stop using the system. Less usage=less eyeballs=less ad revenue, which leads to the end of the network, and the bubble bursts.
The other day, I received invites to connect from one person on Plaxo, Facebook, and LinkedIn, in a 24 hour period. I did not know this person, nor did I seem to have any affiliation with her. I made the error of accepting her Plaxo request. In looking at her Pulse, I saw she was connecting with dozens of people an hour, all unrelated. Because her background was excellent, and seemed a pro, I emailed her, to tell her the negative effect she was having on me, in case others felt the same. She replied with offense and hostility, and, in a huff, told me she wouldn't want to connect to me anyway. I responded back, with a short comment, explaining again that I respected her background, and simply wanted her to understand the potential detrimental effect she was having for employment prospects. Mollified, she explained that my "old school" attitude was simply out of date, and I could simply decline her invite. And you know what? She was right: my unwritten understanding was not the same as hers, and the social networks do very little to enforce it.
Another example: I have been using Twitter for some time now for communicating my status. Because of the rise of the popularity of Facebook, with it's status updates, I decided to consolidate my updates: start at Facebook, and have them automatically syndicate to Twitter. About a month later, I received a note from a coworker who is also on Facebook, suggesting I should tone down the frequency of my status updates, since there were so many business contacts on Facebook who might be overwhelmed. Sure, I could have pointed out that they could simply turn off the status updates, but he's right: again, my "old school" understanding of the purpose of Facebook belies what it may have evolved into. The direct result? I participate far less on Facebook than before, keeping to Twitter, and relying on Plaxo to pick up and syndicate my info to people I actually want to communicate with. Less Facebook visits means less ads, less eyeballs...
It's time for Netiquette 2.0. Each network needs to clearly outline the goals and objectives for the participants, and start to police the adherence of the members. Stalkers on MySpace? Terminate with extreme prejudice. Recruiters on Facebook? You're fired. Unknowns on Plaxo? Exiled. You get the idea. The key is that Sysops need to be recruited and unleashed to identify, and then let the population decide the fate.
When the Wall St. Journal advocates mining Facebook for employment, we know the network is at risk. Let's use history to help save it.