The Emergence and Importance of High Friction Social Networks

“I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER” — Groucho Marx

Since the beginning of the social web, low friction interaction has been the holy grail of fast growing social networks. Facebook has done everything possible to reduce the friction and grease interactions (or at least notifications) from auto-tagging, to easy posting from everywhere and to the ever updating news feed. Similarly, LinkedIn has worked to reduce the friction inherent in posting daily statuses and in spamming everyone you know with endorsements.

While both Facebook and LinkedIn social networks are synchronous (both parties agree to connect), which presents some barrier to entering the feed, once you are in with a simple invite, your ongoing barriers to content creation (data for the platform owner) are low. In fact, even the invitation process is so simple and seamless that you can just upload any contact you have ever emailed and turn them into a friend of business colleague at the push of a button. So that barrier is low as well and given the popularity contest social networks have become, counting friends is an important social status metric for many people.

Over time, what these social networks become is “communities” with low barriers to onboarding, and very low signal to noise ratio because spamming, endorsing or overwhelming a feed is so easy and frictionless. Facebook has done a pretty good algorithmic job trying to cull the feed but it is still filled with a lot of pretty useless items. People have an order of magnitude more friends on Facebook than in real life and are inevitably more talented based on LinkedIn endorsements than in reality because the friending and endorsing process is frictionless. As you can see, when frictionless interaction and content creation accelerates at scale, it quickly loses its utility and it truly loses its sense of community.

Twitter, the asynchronous social behemoth (and Benchmark company) has almost no barriers to sign up and follow. This actually makes the onboarding and feed creation simple and painless because the broadcaster need not care who follows them since it is no burden on the broadcaster or tweeter. Following burdens the follower with culling and filtering his/her feed to make sure it is not overrun by inane tweeters who lower the signal to noise ratio in our twitter feeds. This is better on many levels than communities since there is no social tension in un-following and I can set my dial to the signal level I want. However, in that sense, Twitter is not a community. It is the single best topic & personality specific broadcast channel on the web and has high utility value if you follow less than 100 people and really focus on high value tweeters for you. I use it religiously instead of newspapers where my personal signal to noise ratio is low. However, there is little community enrichment of content and data other than retweeting and the occasional reply and hence it is not really a community.

Enter what I call High Friction Social Communities for areas where there is very high value to both the content and the downside of low signal to noise is painful. Two examples of this are NextDoor, the fast growing neighborhood’s social network and Seeking Alpha’s leading communities of stock market investors (both Benchmark portfolio companies). Both Seeking Alpha and NextDoor require registration to join the service. That is roadblock one. Both also require you to verify that you are a valuable contributor to the community. In the case of Nextdoor it is by proving your residence in that neighborhood, and in the case of Seeking Alpha, it is indicating 5 stock tickers that you are interested in. In the frictionless world of Facebook this is blasphemy. But in areas where it is critical to keep assholes out and where you want every community member to enhance and enrich the community content and communication, ensuring likeness of purpose and interest, and enhancing each individual’s profile is critical to success. In fact, the more friction that NextDoor and Seeking Alpha create, the more valuable the community becomes for its participants because they are certain that the next community member will be accretive to the community in content, communication and tone and that the current members and content are authentic and rich.

Interestingly, I think TripAdvisor’s staying power is a testament to some of the friction it requires in order to post there.

These High Friction Social communities also have draconian rules of conduct where a member can be removed for bad behavior, something that one does not find on Facebook or LinkedIn, except in rare occurrences. And the reason should be obvious, bad behavior can be detrimental to the goals of these communities, good neighborhood relations and good insights into stocks. Compare Seeking Alpha for example to the wild west of the Yahoo Message boards. Was there any value to the Yahoo message boards? It was frictionless and hence valueless. Same goes for neighborhoods on Facebook, the low signal to noise renders them completely unsuitable for neighborhood safety and relationships.

Crucially, high friction and high signal to noise also enable business models that are beyond advertising and, I would argue, the exclusivity and high quality of these communities also helps fight back the commoditization of ads on social networks or communities.

I think that as more high value content areas and more items that are near and dear to me move onto the web, we should expect to see more friction. That is a good thing. We need to raise the signal and lower the noise in our hectic lives where we are bombarded with digital information. And, we need to focus on increasing value for our communities and ourselves and not posting or endorsing just for vanity friend metrics.

[Originally published on 10th December 2012 by MIchael Eisenberg]