The growth of the Internet and the introduction of services like Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed etc. has created new challenges in isolating the signal (the information in which you are really interested) from the noise.
Search only gets you so far – it's good if you are looking for the same information as everyone else or it's already been indexed but if you are looking for new or breaking information that is relevant to you – you have a much bigger challenge than you did in the past.
Think of yourself as a high performance radio receiver…
The challenge in building a receiver is to make sure that you have a high enough signal-to-noise ratio to get the job done – detect the faintest signal in which you are interested from the ambient noise.
Part of the system engineering choices of a high quality receiver is balancing the capture and amplification of the signal you want while at the same time minimizing the sources of noise in the receiver. The more signal you can capture and amplify while minimizing system noise, the better the signal-to-noise ratio of the receiver and the clearer the received signal.
One of the other important aspects of receiver design is minimizing spurious signals – signals that are a by-product of how the receiver has been implemented – these spurious signals are sources of interference and noise that mask the signal that really has your interest.
A large network of "friends" may be socially reassuring but if you use it as one of the inputs to your information receiver you are making a poor design tradeoff between signal and noise. After all, large groups de-emphasize individual opinion in favor of those elements of information that are perceived as having wider (and hence allegedly more useful) appeal.
When I first started writing this blog in March 2006, my first post was about "Finding stuff in the Blogosphere" where I noted that most of my blog reading was articles that had been forwarded by friends. Two years plus later I read a *lot* of blogs but STILL the more interesting "new" stuff I get has been filtered by a small group of friend or colleagues who share common interests with me.
By a few, I mean a handful or so of people who are loosely collaborating on something of interest – in my case it ranges from a couple of groups around my hobbies/personal interests to a larger disjoint set of groups around the companies or business ideas on which I focus. These interactions have a very high signal-to-noise ratio.
Unlike these filtered interchanges of information, many Web 2.0 companies that focus around entertainment and social interactions are being confused as sources of signal while in reality they are sources of noise. We've been lured by the comfort of social interactions and the sense of being "one with the herd group" that we've lost sight of how much harder it's become to find relevant information in a timely manner.
As the current wave of Web 2.0 companies begin to fade from interest, it's time to capture the essence of their true value – interactions between groups of people who have tightly coupled, shared interests. After all, does anyone really have 500 "close" friends whose opinions are all equally valued? I didn't think so!
I think the future applications of "social networking" will see a new wave of companies emerging that focus on leveraging small (social?) group interactions around more meaningful objectives (like sharing knowledge, digging into a topic, learning new things) than throwing sheep at one another.
Got an idea for one? Drop me an email and let's talk.