Friday, September 22, 2006

Social Geography of Virtual Pittsburgh

College students across the country, and around the world, are connecting at Facebook, "an online directory that connects people through social networks." Venture capitalists have noticed and the company intends to expand:

Much of Facebook’s hope for growth rests on a planned expansion beyond its core audience in the college market. Sometime soon, it will open up membership to anyone in the world, a change that may alienate its existing members, who have become used to its exclusive college-only atmosphere.

Social networking sites are attracting more than attention and web traffic. They are drawing buy-outs worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The return on investment demands these sites expand, substantially increasing advertising revenues. This is risky business. As the stories about failed attempts at regionalization remind us, expanding the communal parameters to include more people is often an exercise in futility.

Instead of measuring the value of a virtual social network in terms of the quantity of members, we could assess the quality of participation. Core members of Digg and Wikipedia drive the success of those communities. Digg culture is a great example of a successful model of a productive virtual neighborhood:

Digg is a user driven social content website. Ok, so what the heck does that mean? Well, everything on digg is submitted by the digg user community (that would be you). After you submit content, other digg users read your submission and digg what they like best. If your story rocks and receives enough diggs, it is promoted to the front page for the millions of digg visitors to see.

Plenty of people may browse this site, but there is more than just traffic moving around. Hard core members (~500,000) are busy producing valuable knowledge. The social software facilitates collaboration at a massive scale. Notice that the site creators distinguish between "digg visitors" and the "digg user community." The valuation model employed right now concerns digg visitors, but that could change.

Imagine evaluating a social network site in terms of the production of its user community instead of the number of hits. You would need a different type of collaborative tool, a metric to measure quality of production, and the means to improve the quality of production. This would be one way to harness the human capital of the Burgh Diaspora.

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