For the past few days, I’ve been listening to Seth Godin‘s Tribes on audiobook while I walk to and from work. It’s been a great book so far, and I’d highly recommend it to people who haven’t read it yet.

I just got to the part where he talks about the two approaches one can take in strengthening their tribe: tightening or broadening. In a nutshell, if you want to make your tribe more powerful, you can work to either tighten it, or broaden it. If you tighten, you strengthen the connections between the members of the tribe, or between the leader and the tribe membership. If you broaden, you bring new people into the tribe. It’s a bit of a quality vs. quantity battle.

Using this terminology though, we can easily extrapolate the concept to the social networks that help facilitate tribe building. Social Networks themselves can either be tools with which we tighten our personal networks, or broaden them. By looking at it this way, I think a lot of the “what is twitter for?” and other questions people have about social media can be answered with (relative) ease.

Taxonomy

So, let’s look at each type individually:

First, a tightening network. Think Facebook, Dopplr, or Friendfeed. These tools don’t encourage you to meet new people, instead, they enable you to strengthen the connections you have with people you already know. These networks benefit from their closed nature by encouraging us to share information that many deem private (whether it be last night’s drunken photos or your vacation plans). You won’t meet new people on these networks, but you will get to know the people you do know, better.

Twitter - HomeIn sharp contrast to tightening networks are broadening networks. These networks encourage you to connect with new people, not people you already know. The textbook case, of course, is Twitter, but brightkite and most content sharing sites (flickr, youtube, blip.fm, etc.) work in a similar way. For most twitter users, Twitter is a way to meet new people they don’t know in real life; people who share interests, are from the same city, or who are just really funny.

While this is all well and good from a theoretical perspective, the practical implications of understanding this categorization are huge. I’ve had a ton of friends tell me they don’t want to sign up for twitter because they don’t know anyone else using it. Or I’ve had friends who sign up, follow the four friends they already know who are on it, and then complain that it isn’t that interesting. Conversely, you often hear stories of people posting their embarrassing videos on YouTube to share them with a few friends, and then the video goes viral and their lives are ruined. Both of these represent a fundamental misunderstanding of what the tools are for.

Once you understand what the tools are for, using them becomes easy. You don’t need to sign up to twitter if all you plan on doing is talking to the friends you already have on facebook. And you shouldn’t expect to get a large following on networks which are designed to tighten your connections (unless you’re already famous).

Additionally, I think this is an important consideration for people who are building new online tools. Do you want people to use

What do you think? Is this a good way to think about the differences in social networks? Should we even bother thinking about it? What other classifications exist between networks?

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