Social networks have largely been about three things to date: dating, entertainment and marketing. The last one is so far the least developed of the three. (I’m not talking about advertising on social networks, I’m talking about using profiles or the networks themselves as marketing vehicles; LinkedIn is the exception here.)
I think they have another function, which is growing in importance: noise reduction. I’ll explain what I mean in a second.
I’m often drawn to “most popular” or “most emailed” stories on newspaper sites. Am I curious about what other people think is important? Yes, but it’s also a valuable way for me to discover important or interesting articles that I might have missed (this is also how the community can compensate for the limitations of search.)
I’m also drawn to sites that offer local business reviews in my personal/private life. I’ve talked about ratings and reviews in the context of trust and efficiency or online word of mouth. But there’s another angle here: information overload.
Even though the Internet is starting to take over from traditional media in terms of time spent, it’s a noisy and frustrating medium in many ways. I’ve written fairly extensively about my personal frustrations with online travel. There’s more and more information online and that has become unwieldy to manage and navigate. (See, e.g., this related Autobytel survey re “search engine fatigue.”) As an interesting aside, Google’s Craig Silverstein (employee #1) attributes Google’s early success to the rapid growth of sites, which made human-edited directories obsolete at the time (but they’re back in a way in the form of “social search.”)
Community is something of an antidote to these phenomena. Community has definite limitations and flaws but it also offers a way to navigate the sea of too many choices online. Search is highly utilitarian and indispensable as a tool but it doesn’t help people make decisions among a growing range of competing options (on the broader Internet or even individual sites). Community can by showing the most trusted or popular or best or highest rated options among a list. It can also expose information that we might not have otherwise known about or discovered on our own.
I think this is part of what is driving adoption of social networks and communities at the moment: the idea that there are overwhelming amounts of information or stimuli online and we need filters and ways to reduce some of the noise.