Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Search Insider: The Cycle Of Connection, And What It Means For Search

The Cycle Of Connection, And What It Means For Search

I was introduced to Twitter by my friend Steve, who has 76 followers. Hardly Ashton Kutcher volume, but don't let it fool you: Steve's been ahead of me on the social media curve every step of the way.

A few years ago, he started pestering me about Facebook. "It's awesome. Like, last night, I was having Marmite on toast, and I was able to update my status and let people know."

Right. Marmite on toast. Fascinating.

At the risk of revealing my somewhat-less-than-cutting-edge side, I have to confess that I didn't, at the time, get it. But now that I'm a Facebooker and an advocate for Twitter, I've become fascinated by the patterns of behavior emerging in these networks. Just as John Battelle first spotted the Database of Intentions embodied by Google queries in the aggregate, our collective interests, tendencies and desires can be better understood by observing our social networking habits.

I've recently spent time with several people who could care less about social networking. When they ask me (in tones of pure incredulity) why anyone would bother, I tell them that, as human beings, we love to connect. Not only do we love to connect, we need to connect. Harry Harlow's experiments with baby monkeys proved this more than five decades ago, demonstrating that attachment and love are fundamental developmental requisites, not airy-fairy "nice-to-haves."

This need for connection is as human as it is simian. We build cities and develop transportation and move away from our families and into our studio apartments -- and then we develop phones and faxes and email so that we can communicate better. We create food that can be cooked in a microwave in seconds -- and then we start a "slow food movement" that encourages us to spend more time with the kids. We believe intellectually that we want to be apart and independent -- and then we do everything we can to come back together.

We do this in our online social networks as well, this dance of connection. We join and link and share. We grow excited that we've finally found away to stay connected. We seek, we find, we reunite. We begin to realize how much effort it takes to maintain meaningful relationships with 400 Facebook friends, and that there must be something to that Law of 150 after all. The social network in question begins to turn into a swampy mush of spam, further justifying our decreased involvement. We taper off.

And then we join a new network, and the dance begins anew.

So what does all this mean for search? Quite a lot, in the context of search's failure so far to be fully accepted by social networks. When we visit Google or Yahoo or whatever Microsoft is calling its search offering these days, we're searching for searching's sake; when we visit Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, we're searching for connection.

I envisioned Twitter search unseating Google search because of the power of its real-time, massively collaborative sharing of information; it's no doubt what Jimmy Wales wished Wikia could be. But the danger of Twitter search is its reliance on a human behavior that has shown itself to be stunningly fickle. We connect, abandon, connect, abandon. A business model built on the wisdom of crowds has to take into account that crowds are hard to pin down.

So thanks for taking the time to connect with me by reading this column. Thanks for connecting by leaving a comment, or by following me on Twitter -- and yes, I'll follow you back. But don't be upset if our relationship waxes and wanes like the tide. After all, I'm only human.

Kaila Colbin blogs for VortexDNA, whose technology can improve relevance for search engines, ecommerce sites, or any other recommendation service.

Search Insider for Tuesday, April 28, 2009:

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