News Flash: Social Networks Are About Connecting People

This weekend saw a number of prominent technology observers questioning the value of social networks, including This Week in Tech host Leo Laporte, who penned a thoughtful post on why he’s leaving Google Buzz (s goog) behind. Laporte said he feels that his last four years of social networking use have been an “an immense waste of time,” but I think he and others are missing the larger point. Too many people seem to be trying to use social networks for media and marketing activities instead of the core reason such networks exist: namely, to connect people.

Leo makes several good points in his post, in which he describes himself as “shouting into a vast echo chamber where no one could hear me because they were too busy shouting themselves.” If social networks were just echo chambers, I’d agree with Leo, but I see tangible benefits mixed in among the masses of retweets and shared links. Why do I see value where Leo doesn’t? Because I’ve defined and accepted what I plan to get from such services. While I use Twitter and Facebook to share bits of interesting data on the web — for instance, all of my GigaOM posts are tweeted out to followers — the biggest benefit is when I connect with others.

Take last weekend, for example, which saw me hanging with Paul McCartney’s touring band on a Saturday night, solely because of social networking. After taking in The Beatles LOVE show at The Mirage back in January, I tweeted how much I enjoyed it. Was I just shouting about myself in the echo chamber? A little, sure, but I was also opening myself up to connect with others that like the Beatles or the LOVE show. Sure enough, someone named Brian Ray replied to my tweet just a few minutes later. I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out that Brian is the guitarist and bassist for McCartney while on tour. Would I have ever had a chance to connect with Brian if I hadn’t sent that seemingly useless tweet? Not a chance.

The Twitter conversation with Brian turned into various communications on Facebook over the past several months, both privately and on his Facebook fan page, a destination that Brian has defined as a place for his fans to gather and chat. And sure enough, when McCartney’s tour rolled into Philadelphia last weekend, Brian invited my son and I to meet up in the VIP Band Guest Lounge prior to the show, and to hang out with him and the other band members: all because of a social network connection. Without such tools to connect people, there’s no way I would have had the opportunity Brian provided.

At this point, I’m wondering if Leo meant to use Buzz more for marketing and media rather than to connect with his reader on a very personal and individual level. It’s certainly his choice on how to use social networking, and I’d never say that his choice is wrong; we each use the web in different ways. But a mantra I’ve long held when covering mobile technology applies quite well here: Always use the right tool for the task. If you’re going to use a hammer to saw wood, for example, you’re not going to be very successful. Likewise, if you want to build relationships in a real-time fashion, then social networking is the tool to use. If you get additional value from such networks over and above connecting with people around the world, I say that’s a bonus.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Can Enterprise Privacy Survive Social Networking?