The only real social networks are personal ones

Should Brands Join or Build Their Own Social Network? is the question Jeremiah Owyang raised yesterday on Twitter and in facebook. If you’re a facebook member, you can participate. I am a member, but I’d rather not. At least, not there.

All due respect (and I respect Jeremiah a great deal), I’d rather talk outside the facewall.

Forgive me for being an old fart, but today’s “social networks” look to me like yesterday’s online services. Remember AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve and the rest? Facebook to me is just AOL done right. Or done over, better. But it’s still a walled garden. It’s still somebody’s private space. Me, I’d rather take it outside, where the conversation is free and open to anybody.

So here’s what I think.

First, I’m not sure a “brand” can get social at all. The term was borrowed from the cattle industry in the first place, and will never escape that legacy, now matter how much lipstick we put on the branding iron.

Second, the notion of “brands” either “building” or “joining” social networks strikes me as inherently promotional in either case, and therefore compromised as a “social” effort. Speaking personally, I wouldn’t join a social network any brand built, and I wouldn’t want any brand trying to join one I built. But that’s just me. Your socializing may vary. (And, by the way, if I wear a t-shirt with some company’s name on it, that doesn’t mean I belong to that company’s “network”. All it means for sure is that I’m wearing a t-shirt that was clean that morning. It might mean I like that company or organization. At most it means I have some kind of loyalty — although in the cases of sports teams and schools, the loyalty and sense of affiliation is not to a “brand”, unless you insist on looking at everything in commercial terms, one of which “brand” is. My main points here are that, a) there may be less to expressions of apparent loyalty than it may appear, and b) the social qualities of affection, affiliation or belonging mostly don’t derive from “branding” in the sense that Procter & Gamble began popularizing the term back in the 1930s.)

Third, I’m not sure social networks are “built” in any case. Seems to me they’re more organic than structural. Maybe I’m getting too academic here, but I don’t think so. Words have meanings, and those meanings matter. When I think about my social networks — and I have many — I don’t see them as things, or places. I see them as collections of people I know. The best collections of those for me aren’t on facebook or LinkedIn. They’re in my IM buddy list and my email address book. Even if I can extend those two lists into a “social graph” (a term that drives me up a wall), and somehow federate them into these mostly-commercial things we call “social networks” on the Web, I don’t see those “networks” as structures. I see them as people. Huge difference. Critical difference.

Fourth, the thing companies need to do most is stop being all “strategic” about how their people communicate. Stop running all speech through official orifices. Some businesses have highly regulated speech, to be sure. Pharmaceuticals come to mind. But most companies would benefit from having their employees talk about what they do. Yet there are still too many companies where employees can’t say a damn thing without clearing it somehow. And in too many companies employees give up because the company’s communications policy is modeled on a fort, complete with firewalls that would put the average dictatorship to shame. If a company wants to get social, they should let their employees talk. And trust them.

Bottom line: companies aren’t people. If you like talking about your work, and doing that helps your company, the “social network” mission is accomplished. Simple as that.

One last thing. I’m not saying facebook or LinkedIn are bad. They can be useful for many things, and their leaders deserve kudos for the successes they’ve earned. Still it creeps me out when people treat facebook as “The Web, only better”. It ain’t the Web and it ain’t better. It’s a new, interesting and widespread set of experiments, mostly in technology and business. I’m interested in seeing where it goes. But I’m not drinking the kool-aid.

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67 Responses to The only real social networks are personal ones

  1. Interesting post Doc. I may not agree with you on VRM (or may of course be entirely missing the point or need more information!) but on this one I’m 100% with you. I’ve always fought shy of anything where the marketers are poking their sticky paws into the social and candy wrapping it with ‘brand.’ Dress it as you will, it still amounts to the same thing – marketing AT you/me with no real intention of relationship.

  2. Tara Hunt says:

    Rock on. Have you seen Chris’s new DiSO project? I think you would really love the approach to someone owning their own social network (which they do anyway, even if it is trapped here and there).

  3. Tara Hunt says:

    Oops…forgot to paste the link:

    “a social network with its skin inside out” (which sounds gross, but in this way, ‘social network’ means the Facebooks, LinkedINs and even the Open Socials of the world)

  4. Mike Warot says:


    I’ve got a social network of sorts as well… I’ve been part of quite a few conversations in the past few years… it’s time to go back and update things, and try to add some more value to them. Its amazing how you can get your own history from photos and blog entries.

    I think Dave Rogers is even going to agree with you on this post, by the way.

    Well said.


  5. Don Marti says:

    What makes Facebook different from any other social site dragged down by riff-raff who the intended users don’t want to network with?

    Facebook is starting from a larger base of non-riff-raff users, since they started by requiring ,edu addresses — but how will the site not turn into a large-scale Orkut?

  6. Anonymous says:

    The company I work for won’t allow any correspondence with any media (to which they include blogging on a personal blog) that in any way references the company or any of its services, even if you say they are good.

    I wasn’t aware of this policy and posted several positive stories and, stupidly, listed some of the technical problems I was having with one of their products. I’d only been working there 2 months and am fresh out of university.

    I’d never been briefed on the above media rules so it was rather surprising to be pulled into my department managers office and hear that it was a fireable offence and it was only because I’ve been doing really good work that I’ve avoided that.

    Suffice to say I’m looking for other work.

  7. Dr.Mani says:

    I tried to articulate something similar when I responded to Chris Brogan’s question of where social networks were headed.

    All success

  8. Pito Salas says:

    Check out this, from about 2 months ago. My post was inspired by your post, so, I am not sure who is the chicken and who is the egg here 🙂

  9. Doc

    Thanks for this insight, I see things from the corporate side, and I’ve got to tell you that things move slowly. While everything you say makes complete sense, I see how companies are doing this every day, and it’s a stretch for me to how some of these things will happen.

    There are already successful online communities that exist around brands, Microsoft’s Channel 9, Big Brothers and Sisters, Intuit’s online community, and many others. People join these communities as they have something to accomplish, or want to connect with other like-minded individuals.

    I’ve extended this conversation (including a timely video from Bill Johnston, community expert) on my blog.

    As always, your insights and contributions are always wonderful

  10. Tom O'Brien says:


    I have my own thoughts up on this one – see link below.

    I have to agree with you – Brands should not join or own social networks. Brands building their own social networks stinks of sheer hubris to me.

    People representing brands may be able to participate in communities – but it is hard. They have to:

    1. Put community interests ahead of their corporate interests
    2. Participate in a human way – that means no Legal or PR review

    There are communities around brands – but they tend to be technical/help ones – which are important – and I would say that they are more enabled by the brand than owned by the brand.

    As soon as Intuit decides that there can be no negative posts about them in their community, the people participating will pack up and move on to a new place.


  11. Thanks Doc, great post. I think a key point here that needs emphasis and reinforcement is that companies need to let their employees talk about their work.

    It’s the single smartest (and most humane) thing any company could do with regard to their corporate communications policy.

  12. Always love to see great minds thinking alike:

    Doc: “The best collections of those for me aren’t on facebook or LinkedIn. They’re in my IM buddy list and my email address book.”

    Chris Brogan:
    “In fact, think about it, your social network is your contact list. No invitations necessary.”

    Oh, and gratuitous opportunity to re-quote myself “Facebook ain’t the Social Graph, it’s social graffiti.” 🙂

  13. Azam Khan says:

    “First, I’m not sure a “brand” can get social at all.”
    It’s true, a brand can’t say ‘whatsup man, whats going on with you?’ But the people representing the brand can discuss their products. How else will people find out about the products? Most people, I believe, would not want any form of advertising. They want to watch shows uninterrupted. They don’t want to see spam messages. They want to connect to other humans, eventually that will change, as we see the advent of AI emerge, and people will also reach out to robots? Maybe. The social network aspect of brands is not so people of babylon can gather and bow before king brand. It’s so people can see what’s out there, and they may choose to participate and create mashups and do other things.

    AOL did mess up in a lot of ways, and I can tell you from personal experience how I used AOL, and used some of the custom programs people built for it, to do various things that couldn’t normally be done. AOL didn’t have that rich ‘profile’ experience and not too many people were online. I used to chat with all sorts of random people since I was 12 yrs old. But AOL was closed to allowing anyone to join the conversation. Facebook isn’t. Hence people will join FB PAGES and become fans (asides from doing it just out of curiosity for an innovative feature). Maybe those part of the network will be able to discuss how to modify a certain product of that brand. Who knows. Brands do have that feel to them, that feel that Harley Davidson riders get, and mass marketed products like coca cola will probably not benefit from a social network.

    Social networks are based on people, but its technology that drives this. Technology built by people. Is facebook not a brand? By being in the facebook platform, we’re also essentially conversing with the facebook brand, just because it owns the show doesn’t mean it’s essence isn’t embedded in it.

    As open as the internet may be and facebook closewalled, you still use a browser to goto the web. That’s interacting with microsoft’s brand. The only difference I see in a social network is a person representing a brand will try to reach out to people and show them why they should trade their money for the utility they will derive from the brand’s product.

    Second, the notion of “brands” either “building” or “joining” social networks strikes me as inherently promotional in either case, and therefore compromised as a “social” effort. Speaking personally, I wouldn’t join a social network any brand built, and I wouldn’t want any brand trying to join one.”

    That’s really all semantics.

    And yes I wholly agree on the fact companies moderate their employees too much. And the answer is ‘legal issues,’ something companies have yet to work out.

    There’s too much to say on this issue. Rock on Doc!

  14. Jesse Tayler says:

    Interesting article!

    I don’t see why a serious enterprise would allow their brand, image and culture to be part of some big generic network service.

    If you want relevant and valuable discussion and collaboration, then you have to have a community that extends your brand with the same care and craftsmanship of your website or printed materials.

    Unless your brand image is an MLM vitamin marketing company of course, in which case draw your own logo, upload it onto some generic network service allow your customers to fill out a profile that includes their sexual preferences as well as their vitamin needs.

  15. Yes, yes and yes. Excellent stuff, as always, Doc.

    The key difference between the Net as Walled Garden 1.0 (AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve, et al) and version 2.0 (FB and the like) is that in the early days you built a service, packaged it up with a bunch of content, and then sold it to punters. Now, you sell punters on the idea, and they turn up to help you build the service and contribute the content.

    I am in Facebook – but all the people I know within Facebook’s garden walls are just all the people I know who also happen to be on Facebook. Same with LinkedIn and other sites. When I get “friend” requests from people I’ve never heard of, I tend to either quietly (and very rudely, perhaps) ignore them, or I’ll fire off a note to ask why they consider me a friend.

    Still, like you – I don’t think that FB and its ilk are bad. Quite the opposite. We’re social animals by nature, so these online expressions of our flocking behaviour are interesting, welcome and, in several ways, useful. If nothing else, all this Web 2.0y stuff is helping us make all kinds of new and interesting mistakes – many of them in plain view of our peers, where we can learn and get prodded towards some hope of improvement.

  16. bender says:

    Smart, interesting post. But I disagree. So here’s my “one dumb dude’s opinion”…

    Social networks are more than just the sum of the individuals. It ain’t just people talking…in fact, it’s NOT about the individuals. The meaningful ones either center around a single passion point (cars, music, business, etc.) OR they facilitate small groups forming around passion points (like Facebook or MySpace).

    So it’s about the passion, not the people.

    Do brands have a right to play? As much as they have a right to build stadiums, print t-shirts, co-create game content, produce TV shows, or finance movies. Which is to say, if it enhances rather than ruins the experience, why not?

    And in some examples, I think brands can be better (read: more credible) creator of communities. Example, a network built and moderated by Volve engineers could (could!) be more useful/meaningful than one built by the dude down the block.

    And when I say “a brand” I mean “people speaking on behalf of the brand.”

    My .02.

  17. Jay Deragon says:


    I agree with much of your premise. However, the “conversations” between people is in fact creating the potential for a cultural revolution in business.

    Every economic shift comes with revolutionary changes to business models and consumer preferences. Every cycle of change comes faster than the previous change and the accelerated technological dynamics fuel creativity and innovation which only fuel further changes.

    Technology is the primary influence both in the changing dynamics and the possible outcomes. Each new technological advancement enables both individuals and institutions to “think out of the box” as to the implications, usefulness and subsequent market dynamics created by the advancement.

    As we reflect on history we can see the accelerated changes and the condensed cycle times of change caused by technology. Business 1.0 was a period of basic business models aimed at maximizing the economic gains brought on by production of products and distributed to the masses for consumption. During the era of Business 1.0 people were told what to do and they did it because they wanted to economic gain of a paycheck.

    During the era of Business 2.0 businesses produced information brought on by computers networked with other computers and the aggregation of information was consumed by institutions, businesses and individuals. We all became overloaded with too much information and lost in its meaning. Businesses used the information to develop new strategies, new products and process improvements. We all became overwhelmed and became paralyzed by the analysis of all the data.

    People were told how to interpret and use the data. The media supported this premise with reports of market movements and developments based on the information technology provided. People became paralyzed and overloaded with the information. Individuals were labeled as “customers or data points of measurement for business gains”. While promoting relationships as a common marketing theme the business cultures were too consumed by the desire for information to think about forming real relationships.

    Business 3.0: Enter the social web

    The past business models have been consumed with the end target, economic gains. While applying technology, knowledge and management advances the past business models have left behind the most important element of any business success, relationships.

    Business cultures have suppressed employee participation rather the cultures have created an environment which encourages following rather than leading with self expression. Businesses have proclaimed the importance of the customer while creating barriers to customer participation and responsive service. Under the pressure of competition businesses have reacted by the numbers, cutting budgets, while not clearly understanding the root cause of poor performance, poor relations.

    The social web empowers people with a freedom of expression and the ability to connect with people. The eco-system is creating new relationship dynamics and the consumers are listening and responding to other consumers. People have been empowered by technology and subsequently people are filling a void which was created by the business models of the past.

    We’ve been taught not to trust the politicians, the media and our employers. Subsequently we created a subculture of connections, both personally and professionally, with like minded people who see, feel and experience the same dynamics of institutional speak, corporate changes that don’t really bring the changes required and a dominate media that feeds us the same spin. The majority of people have been and continue to seek other people who can relate to the business environment of the past and the fallacy of the behavior that continues today.

    Now the people have found a method of fulfilling the fundamental desire for relationships based on free and open expression of thought without governance by any institutions, we the people have become the institution of expression. The social web has created empowerment, individual recognition, the power of self expression and said attributes have attracted the masses forming into “swarms”. These collective dynamics are creating a paradigm shift which the majority of businesses have yet to comprehend and in many cases aren’t even remotely aware.

    The Emergence of The Relationship Economy will be fueled by individuals. The Businesses that understand and embrace the very dynamics that are fueling the social web will themselves create significant market shifts in distribution, sales and subsequent revenue growth. Why? Because those business leaders that lead their companies through a revolutionary transformation will gain the respect and loyalty of the people. A simple yet profound truth grounded in the fiber of human relationships.

    What say you?

    To see this post and its illustration it will appear on my blog tomorrow at

  18. Rory Yates says:

    I agree with your general point and think Insight people need to get on board asap to help make things happen in a more clever way.

    I also agree with Jeremiah that things move slowly in large corporations and we are dealing with 100+ years in some of our largest businesses in the UK and that kind of legacy makes things difficult.

  19. Hayden says:

    Spot on Doc!

    Brands need to realise that social networks are human spaces first.


  20. DJHowatt says:

    It’s a thoughtful post with excellent points. But I’d quibble over your analysis of the dynamics of a social network. I think the word “social” is a red herring. These are all networks first and foremost. They join people who have similar interests, affiliations or contacts, but not always for social reasons. So evaluating the networks according to social norms seems too limited. I believe that companies have the same rights to participate as unaffiliated individuals do, but with the same opportunity to embarrass themselves. The rules of engagement are still being formed and companies run the risk of being the bull in the china shop. As an individual I like it when a company adds value to the discussions or to the network itself. It doesn’t matter to me if that also means that they are achieving their brand objectives.

  21. You are right that the only social networks are the personal ones. However, the future is facebook and myspace. Socializing is different than before and this is just another phase of human civlization. I believe that people will more often than not talk to others via text messaging or email rather than a good old phone conversation. It will get worst before it gets any better.


    Doc, I don’t want to sound funny or anything, but the best collections of my social networks are found in the contacts application of my mobile phone.

  23. Groucho Marks said, “I would not join any club that would have me as a member”. Brand owners would do well to apply the same logic to their potential membership of social networks.

    To be credible a network has to be build and run by individuals. Any network that has a significant brand presence is, almost by definition, not credible.

  24. Jack says:

    I think the real new big social networking will be MateCube. I dont think it’ll grow as big as facebook, but it will surely become a top player in the industry.

  25. I see little point in Facebook if your own social network is not there already. If your social network is geographically spread, then Facebook aggregates info you would otherwise email. If your social network is spatially close to you, then Facebook aggregates notes for doing things and keeping in touch, just as with the phone.

    I guess another case is when you do not have a social network – or when you are looking to build one.

  26. Wrong, AOL was about meeting strangers because your friends and family still didn’t have access to email. Now the only good product AOL offers is not its browsers, that’s for sure, but honestly the iChat application on apple computers.
    That’s it.
    It competes with Skype and only because Apple has helped it out so much.

    In any case, Now, Facebook is about keeping strangers and strange people out. You obviously don’t have close friends because otherwise you’d know that.

    Honestly, there’s nothing more to say. That is what makes facebook awesome, its known, its faster than Myspace, and you choose if you want to screw with your page, otherwise, just reject the zombie application and you’ll be fine with a nice lite page that updates you on parties, groups, and tons of cool and interesting Real Life events, with only your closest friends or networks you left of people who were your closest friends, in say, academia.

  27. Pingback: Quick Thoughts for 12.18.07 — Shooting at Bubbles

  28. Bo says:

    I agree with this post, it goes back to the origins of the net in a way – people swapping info in a non profit manner.

    However the whole brand concept (I’d never thought of the cattle!) is something that millions fall for. The question is – if they feel they can belong to a genuine social network that is also a brand, then their interpretation of this stands maybe?

  29. Free MySpace Train says:

    Rewritten Article

    One of the best sources of advice I accept about this is right here.

    Keep blogging Thank you and all the best

  30. I know facebook is a brand, but it’s used by so many different groups that I wonder if they do in fact compromise their individuality by communicating through such media? Compromising individuality is how I would define branding as in the ‘cattle branding’ you talk about.

  31. Surely the best way forward is to integrate Internet and human social networks? The net makes it easier to connect with others, but it’s unsustainable unless we have some form of human interaction to support this.

    We are all so overloaded with information these days that actually talking to other people in person or by phone is massively more effective than twitter, email, facebook etc

  32. Daniellle says:

    I agree with you Doc, face book and other social media pages have become a sort of media conspiracy, it has changed allot over the past few years from a purely social media to a advertising media and I am afraid to see what will happen in the future. Thanks for the post it was enjoyable reading..

  33. I think facebook appeals to the “me too” and “look at me” psychology of branding and that’s why it works. Shallow? Surely not 😉

  34. kevin says:

    The web isn’t just the FaceBook or twitter it’s a massive exchange of information and ideas, it’s the single most important invention in the world today.
    Some want to turn it in to a shopping centre some want for recreation, but it’s not, it’s the free exchange of information and ideas that make the web what it is a free and open place.

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