Entropy of Social Networks: Why they all go bad

Yes, we have a new social network and I am a proud profile carrying member of the new elite created by an artificial scarcity of invites. A technique now pretty much a requirement for launching anything new that’s social with 2 benefits, the obvious buzz factor and the ability to iterate and learn before you expand.

But this post is about history of civilizations on the internet. Why they all boom, grow and then slowly die.

Remember Yammer? Remember MySpace & AOL/AIM? Over the last decade, so many have died or become redundant.

I think the answer lies in history of cities, and entropy of private information. Allow me to explain:

1. History of Cities: Social networks are like cities. They are born when small villages (Facebook at Harvard) expand due to a whole host of factors ranging from better cleaner layout, availability of resources (upload your pictures), ability to mingle with new kinds of people (dating & business relationships), etc. While all this is somewhat obvious — these social network cities need to be viral to expand. As more people join, we all derive more value — — hence, most of them are designed to be viral. However, this virality means over time our social network cities become crowded, cluttered and polluted with noise that makes them less valuable. Many of us intuitively feel this — how many of us have had that moment where you go from — I love my new social network city to I don’t how all these people ended up being my friends? This extends beyond social network cities to many other communication tools — Yahoo! and AOL IM — small clean lists of people I wanted to talk to to a list of everyone who wants to bother us.

This happens to great cities too — London, New York, Calcutta, Mumbai — all have gone through there a growth spurts followed by the years/decades of being terrible places to live in. But the cost of building a new New York often outweighs the cost of cleaning it up and fixing it up. Where we can, we cheat and build a New Delhi (yes, New Delhi is literally a new Delhi built outside of Delhi; ditto for Jerusalem, and many other cities where you could geographically move out). Cities like New York, London, San Francisco end up spending money to fix the cities enacting laws to keep it livable and make it better over time.

Alas, with social network cities of MySpace and Friendster — no such luck. Its easier for the residents to move out gradually and live in the new suburbs of Facebook and Google Plus. And if your friends move with you, the move can be sudden and quite painless. You can live in 2 cities at once — and over time stop visiting your old city. This holds true for your old email and old IM too. Remember, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, or AIM — you don’t call her any more, do you?

2. Entropy of Privacy
Over time, private information that is shared becomes less private. Think about your Social Security Number, when you first got your SSN — it was a rather private number. If you have been using it for a while though, its probably in the databases of dozens of banks, mortgage issuers, insurance companies, employers, payroll managers, your dentist’s local office, and so on. This means its much more likely to have been disclosed to more people and therefore less private. Same is true for a new email address you acquire. For a while, very few people know your email address but as you start using your email address for its intended purpose i.e., email people — over time, email address gets shared by more and more entities and eventually is effectively public.This concept has been studied by academics with more precise definitions (see here).

The analog of this is your social network and how well managed it is. Disorder increases in your social network over time — you add more and more people, trust goes down, unless you manage your accounts as it were a full time job your social and business friends and acquaintances all get mixed — and sometimes you add strangers just to avoid offending someone.

So what do we do? We don’t have to live in the mess we co-create! Rather than clean house, we move. Of course, over time — we re-create the same mess. But for the first few months, may be even years you will get a lot of value from having your clean new Slack channels which is a smart innovation but hardly path breaking. Facebook could easily help us manage our friend lists by creating 5 prepopulated lists with privacy settings and auto suggesting who goes where — they have plenty of data on my social graph to help partition it which is a nerdy way of saying they can help me create my ‘circles’ using information such as who do I chat with, share pictures with etc.

Fundamentally, Slack so far is just Yammer on mobile meets Facebook (Circles) & Twitter (Stream) rebuilt from scratch with certain solutions that are cleaner (by definition). Its clean, it works on mobile.

Similarly, Quora is focused less on social networking and more on being a repository of the best answers on questions ranging from what cars to buy to how did company X get started. Its singularly focused on solving this problem with social being a side effect. Facebook Answers is somewhat similar but lacks the focus of Quora.

It will be an interesting few months to see how this works out. In the meantime, I am much more keenly watching what’s not been solved yet ranging from local social networks, Q&A networks to secure enterprise collaboaration that doesn’t require on more new tool.

Exciting times to live and collaborate in.

CEO, Skyflow Privacy Vault, an API company.