Social media: you can’t fake a network

"Social" might be the most over-hyped phenomenon on the internet today. Yet, very few of those creating the hype talk about the real effort needed to get good returns from the social web - and social apps.

Four months ago, while wandering around Le Web in Paris, I was accosted by a man who had spotted the “official blogger” on my badge. He was from Pixplit, an app-based service that allows people to co-create collage images called splits. In fact, he was the co-founder and CEO Jay Meydad, out and about actively promoting and demoing his service, showing me how spots are created and developed. Above is an example of one in progress. This sort of collaborative art sounds fun, so I signed up.

Four months later, a grand total of one friend is on the service. The image above is an as yet unfinished split featuring the top of her head and my daughter’s face. I’ve always meant to get involved with more general splitting activity, but without the incentive of existing friends to interact with, I’ve never done so.

This is a familiar tale – those of us on Twitter in the early days remember the feeling of “what do I do now?” after you signed up, before the arrival of the recommended users list, celebs on Twitter and the like. Until you found people, it was pointless. Getting to the point where there network effect kicks in took time and effort. The long-term successful services have survived and thrived by doing everything they can to oil that early process, heaping you find people to interact with as quickly as possible, but it’s a lesson that doesn’t seem to have been widely learnt.

There are umpteen voices clamouring to tell you how important social business, or social networking, or social media or social customer support will be, and how easy it is to get going. I sometimes wonder if any subject in the whole of history has had more “how to” guides written about it that social media in it various forms (dating, perhaps?). All make it sound easy, even if they creak under the weight of buzzwords and jargon. Sometimes the most dangerous thing you can do is try to persuade people that there’s no dragon there at all. But a big, scary dragon lurks at the very heart of social – building relationships and networks is hard, and you need those to get any value from social at all. Pixplit is a fun little app, whose value is diminished to me solely because I don’t have a network there.

Many people are too impatient – or too lacking in social  skill – to build a genuine set of relationships the long, hard way, so it’s no wonder that dozens of businesses have sprung up offering to sell you the appearance of one.  As Nicole Perlroth reported for the Bits blog earlier in the week:

Fake followers are typically sold in batches of one thousand to one million accounts. The average price for 1,000 fake followers is $18, according to one study by Barracuda Labs. Mr. Stroppa and Mr. De Micheli said some sellers bragged that they made $2 and $30 per fake account. A conservative estimate, they said, was that fake Twitter followers offered potential for a $40 million to $360 million business.

When people are prepared to pay to cheat, you know that social is hard.