Social Networks: To Spam or Not Spam

One of the things about social networks is that they’re completely useless without users. You can create the best solution out there but unless you attract users to your site, it just wont spread. You need the momentum. So how do social networks get the initial momentum? They encourage you to spam everyone you know by bulk importing some contacts from one of your address books.

As a rite of passage some of these social networks come clean and start implementing a stricter policy against adding too many friends.

A few days ago, Plaxo Founder Todd Masonis blogged that we will be taking steps to drastically reduce the number of update requests that our members send out.

Plaxo’s Personal Card: An Apology

Or maybe not.

This is a nice screenshot from LinkedIn. I have a very bare profile on there that I mainly use to check out what my friends and acquaintances are up to. Obviously, I can’t be bothered to go around searching for people so I bulk import people from my address books. If you use gmail they have this helpful feature of automatically adding people you correspond with or at least have exchanged an email with.

The problem is people you exchange email with is a very loose definition of acquaintance as it includes everyone from close family to customer support. I realize that I should be taking the care to verify and carefully think who I should be asking to make connections. The problem is:

  1. LinkedIn makes it unusually easy to spam people in your virtual rolodex
  2. People have very different thresholds as to what they consider social network spam (some people are just more easy going while others hate it)
  3. When you start making connections, you naturally have to reach out to a lot of people
Of course, the easy solution is to simply throttle the person making these spammy requests rather than think of better ways to protect people who don’t want random requests while making it easy for new users to make connections.
It’s a volatile tango for social networks. They want to maximize growth without alienating users or making a bad name for spamming people. I don’t think it has to be this way. They could simply throttle requests automatically over the course of an extended period, check to see if the connection being requested includes mutual contacts, or differentiate between random requests within the site and people actually initiating contacts from email addresses.
A lot of social networks that break through eventually implement a hypocritical, “enjoy our service, but not too much” policy. I wish there was a better way.