Monday, December 12, 2011

Time for Online Social Networks to Deliver More

According to Nielsen ( Americans on average spend about an hour a day online, out of which about 15 minutes is spent on Facebook. In other words, a quarter of an average American's time online is spent on Facebook!
Now that is certainly great for Zuck, but my question is, Is it great for us too? Are we living a better or richer life because of this new 15 minute a day activity? What are the benefits we are receiving from being on Facebook? More importantly, do those benefits outweigh the opportunity cost of the time that we are spending on it?

It is hard to “measure” benefits when it comes to services such as online social networks. Sure, it is nice to stay in touch with friends, find old classmates, and create groups and events where relevant information is stored and shared, but how does one “measure” these benefits? How do you translate the news you learned, the contact you made, or the audience you received into measurable economic values?

Bellow I tried to list a few benefits I have received from online social networks. I can't exactly measure the costs and benefits but overall I feel the benefits have been too little compared to the time I have spent on online social networks. In other words, the ROI of my time spent on them has not been high enough.

First, some of the benefits I have received:
  • Back in late 2009, I learned about the annual Wisdom 2.0 conference reading someone's tweet. Subsequently I attended the conference, which inspired me to do various things. One basic outcome of the conference was that I suddenly felt comfortable with the side of me that believed in the value of mindfulness. For years I had suppressed that side of me. Wisdom 2.0 conference taught me that it was OK to start an engineering R&D meeting by saying, “Let's take a moment and check in with our three centers (mind, heart, body) to become present, before we start the meeting”! After the conference I felt much more comfortable talking about mindfulness. Hey, if the VP of product at Google and the CIO of Genentech do it, why can't I?!
  • Following technology folks on Twitter I also got to know Charles River Venture Capital partner Bill Tai and subsequently the annual MaiTai Kiteboarding camp. Being really passionate about kitesurfing, I sent a direct message to Bill and to my surprise he responded! Long story short, I am now part of the MaiTai kiteboarding group and have met hundreds of Bay area business professionals, angel investors, entrepreneurs and VCs. Some of these new connections have since become good friends, good business contacts, or both.
  • Four years ago, I needed to get a meeting with a major $1B public firm. The technology my company was offering was a perfect fit for them and I needed to find a way to make a pitch. I had extracted the names of the executives I needed to talk to from the company's SEC filings but to my surprise, I could not find an email or phone number for any of them. No LinkedIn profiles, nothing. Finally, I found a Facebook profile for one of the VPs. Not bearing too much hope for a response, I sent her a Facebook message explaining what we were offering and why they would benefit from it. To my surprise, a few days later I received an email from one of the directors at the company! Following that we got meetings and a 6-month long beta trial with the firm. They eventually did not adopt our technology, but that should not take away from the value of Facebook, the medium that connected me to my most important target customer!
  • I recently took a year off to travel in the Caribbean and South America. Throughout my trips I met lots of interesting people and made many good friends. Today, I am connected to all of them. If it weren't for Facebook, I wouldn't be able to maintain these valuable friendships that were formed around our shared love of kitesurfing. Using Facebook, we have since organized other memorable kitesurfing trips.
  • The number of times I have used LinkedIn for hiring people, seeking employment, finding partners, references, etc. is really more than I can count. It has really proven to be a powerful tool for me in my career to the point that I can't remember what life was like before LinkedIn!

Now, this is great, but like I said earlier, I really think it is time for online social networks to start offering us more concrete benefits. The emergence of companies like BranchOut, which help people use their network for business connections, is a good beginning. I predict that there are going to be more applications built on top of this amazing human graph that are going to help us tap into the power of groups. I have seen task sharing and goal setting apps like Sumazi and Astrid built for Facebook and although they have some ways to go to become viral and effective, I think they are going in the right direction. In my opinion, this huge network of connections can be used for more purposeful and goal-oriented sharing, stronger support groups, education, and so much more; and I am optimistic that it will.

Let me know if you had any comments, or share your story if you have received some interesting and unique benefits from participating in online social networks. Looking forward to hearing them!

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