Un-natural Acts: Pumping up the Volume on Social Networks

I was reading Chris Brogan’s Blog — always highly recommended — and one of his recent posts, Quid Pro No, got me thinking about how some social networking websites are un-naturally inflating their user numbers by creating an environment where reciprocal friending is de rigueur.  Everything from address scraping to spammy auto-tweeting when your friends sign up, to old-fashioned guilt is used to get you to sign-up for sites you never intend to visit again.

Call it the social networking bubble.  Add up all the supposed users of all the social networking sites and you would probably get a number larger than Earth’s population.  When someone asks how many social networks you belong to, is the answer vastly different than the number of social networking sites you are active in?  If the ratio of “active” to “belong” is less than 50 percent, consider yourself lucky.  I started counting mine recently and discovered several sites I can’t even access — lots of lost password functions don’t work when you’ve changed jobs and can’t access your old work email  anymore. (Unfortunately, some of these profiles are well optimized and show up when you search on my name, even though I haven’t been active in them for months.)

I recently posted a short article on friending and follow strategies but maybe it is time to look at things from the provider point of view.

Last week I attended a Jelly Talk on early stage funding options (you can read about it on the Mass Innovation Nights Blog).  Bijan Sabet from Spark Capital talked about his preference for “user engagement.”  When asked about the relative importance of users versus a business model, Bijan said he’d rather see big user numbers and cited Facebook.  He’d rather see scale. I can’t speak for how Bijan discusses user numbers but I know the typical VC shorthand is “uniques,”  “time-on-site” and “pages viewed.”  Decent measures but too often thrown over for conversations around sign-up numbers and “users” — whatever that means.  (I am reminded of a time when not-so-savvy marketing people measured their traffic in “hits” — a meaningless number.)

Much has been made of the “high” abandon rate on Twitter — the number of first time users of Twitter who never return.  But after looking into the numbers, it doesn’t strike me as any higher or lower than other similar sites during the same “early years.”  (Blogs like Nielsen compared the site quitters with the other sites based on their size not their maturity.)

Sites need to seriously think through their friending strategies.  Having a large number of supposed users may be your goal.  Maybe you think it will be nice when you are trying to get funding and make partnerships happen.  But the reality is that smart investors and partners will ask for the “real” numbers, showing engaged and current users.  Not just sign-ups.  How do you keep your audience coming back?