Social network invites can be a plague

For some people, though, the issue with the constant stream of invites is becoming more than just annoying.

If you're like many people deeply wired into a Web 2.0 lifestyle, your inbox is a never-ending flow of invites to new social-networking services.

Day in and day out, it seems, there's a new one. Today it's Notch Up, yesterday it's Naymz. Last week it was Dopplr.

And that's not even counting the steady flow of requests to be someone's friend on LinkedIn, MySpace, Plaxo or Facebook.

For me, it's a constant annoyance. I know I probably should jump on the LinkedIn bandwagon, for example, yet I never have, and frankly, don't expect I ever will. I suppose it's possible that one day, long ago, I created an account. All I know is that every few days, someone I know--often a distant acquaintance--will ask me to be their friend on LinkedIn.

And of course, what follows some set number of days later is a stern automated message warning me that my offer to be that person's friend is going to expire. Darn!

For some people, though, the issue with the constant stream of invites is becoming more than just annoying.

"I'm suffering from sheer invite toxicity," wrote Heather Kelley, the Kraus visiting professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, to an e-mail list I'm on. "Regardless of source, exclusivity or debatable utility of the service, my immediate response to seeing one in my inbox is 'NOT ANOTHER ONE,' combined with annoyance at the friend who sent it--'What? You expect me to join ANOTHER time-wasting thingy just because you did?'"

And lest you think that Kelley is complaining too much, and why can't she just ignore the invites and move on, remember that for many people, staying connected to their friends, and current or potential professional colleagues is a little like breathing.

Whether that's a good thing is a conversation for another day, but you know these people are hardly rare--you may even be one of them.

And for people like that, there is an intense social and professional pressure to join whatever new social network is on offer, especially if the invite comes from a friend.

"That is pretty much exactly how I feel about it," said Mark De Loura, a San Francisco-based video game technology consultant. "There's enough of a net gain out of joining that I always (feel I have to) do it."

One of the major problems behind the flood of invites is that many of the services seem to mine users' contacts lists for names to send invites, either for joining a new service or for, say, using a Facebook application. Similarly, some systems force users to opt-out of adding their contacts to new invite lists rather than opt-in.

To some, that is a real problem that the companies behind the social networks need to solve.

"That behavior," said Kim Pallister, a technology blogger who works for Intel, "the opt-out spam list is going to piss off the user base...You need to have that be opt-in, not opt-out."

That's particularly true because, practically speaking, since many users quickly click through such opt-outs without noticing what they mean, they may not even see what they're agreeing to.

"The interesting thing about those invites," said Judith Meskill, a longtime social networks observer and blogger, and currently COO of a startup called CrowdFusion, "is that they are being spawned often without the knowledge of the spammer. This practice really must stop."

Meskill suggested that the only way it might stop is if the companies behind some of the services band together to create a set of behavioral regulations.

"It's their industry," Meskill said. "They should be protecting its rep. It really makes the whole industry look bad."

Still, if such standards were to be implemented, it's certainly not going to happen any time soon. And in the interim, the problem of people being endlessly frustrated by more and more invites continues.

One rather well-known tech executive, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates recently decided to quit Facebook because he was getting more than 8,000 friend requests a day.

That, of course, is an extreme example, but to people like Kelley, the never-ending invites often feel like a plague, and one that simply won't go away.

"I first noticed it like one notices a new allergic reaction," Kelley, who said she is or has been a member of at least 14 social networks, told me by IM. "Over time, I started noticing a more and more negative reaction to each new one that surfaced. It was similar to the feeling of hearing about a new startup during the height of the (dot-com) bubble. It just defied all logic and kind of offended me as a thinking human."

Not everyone, of course, feels that the number of new social networks is a problem. For some, it creates ever-changing ways to connect to important people in their lives, and more focused ways to filter lists of friends and acquaintances.

"I receive invitations for new social networking sites almost every time a new one hits beta," said Souris Hong-Porretta, vice president of interactive media at Entertainment Media Ventures. "I'm not so tired of receiving invites. It's part of my culture and part of my job to know what's out there."

Hong-Porretta said that she's even moderating a panel at the upcoming South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, about such applications.

But even she wishes the services weren't such time-sucks.

"I do sometimes wish that there was a magic button I could push that would fill in all my relevant information for me though."

Hong-Porretta, though, can see why for people less interested in staying abreast of every new service, the invite stream is a problem.

"I'm not surprised people are experiencing social networking site invite fatigue," she said. "The sites are time capital intensive in the beginning...I think people are going to be much more particular about the sites they sign up for now. I think a defining factor will be, 'Is this site useful or helpful to me?'"

One thing some would like to see would be an actual consolidation of the many services, precisely so there isn't social networking site overload.

"What I'd ideally like would be to have a couple different networks, personal and professional (that I could) keep separate," said De Loura. There might be "somebody I might want to connect to for personal reasons, but not for business reasons. (And) there are people I want to protect. I don't want everybody to be linked to execs at Microsoft who have been gracious enough to link to me."

Meskill thinks that De Loura is on the right track. She said she foresees a new set of social network sites that are "strong vertical offerings," sites like Flickr that give users a specific and focused set of things to do.

"I think a new generation of strong, user-focused offerings would be very well received," Meskill said, "in verticals like photos, music, food, tech, etc. Those plays have not arrived yet, however."

The thing is, though, that even if social-networking services do evolve as Meskill suggests, users will still find themselves accosted with nearly daily invites. And that's not necessarily a good thing. Especially when the invites come from friends.

In fact, there's even a term for the invites that come from friends: " bacn ."

"It's spam from people you know," said Pallister. "It's worse than spam because you're not sure you should ignore it. 'Did they mean to send this to me? Should I delete it?'"

Meskill said she's aware that bacn has become a big problem on Facebook.

"Friends are dropping friends as friends," Meskill said, "because they are being hammered by a ton of this stuff."

So what's the solution?

It's hard to say. But to people like Meskill, it's become clear that the social network services are going to have to take action soon, or else they're going to risk turning off their users. And these days, it's more important to those companies than ever that that doesn't happen.

"Since we have advanced beyond the first adopters," she said, "and the next wave and are now into the broader wave of medium-to-late adopters, this is more imperative than ever."

 

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