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Private Social Networks

Written by: Lee Stacey

Published on: April 22, 2013

If you take your eyes off the Twitters, Facebooks and Linkedins of this world, you’ll notice that something has been bubbling away in the background for some time. That something is the private social network. As the term suggests, this is a social network that is locked away in the depths of the Internet where nobody can see it.

While this may sound dark and sinister, in this age of oversharing, there are many good reasons to create a private network: maybe you want somewhere to talk shop with work colleagues, maybe you hold a family discussion group, or perhaps you manage a team or youth group, for instance. There’s a very good chance that you’re already part of a private social network of some sort.

What is a Private Social Network?

What we really mean when we say ‘private social network’ is ‘a service for the facilitation of social networks that is only accessible by those given permission to do so by an existing member or administrator of that network’ – catchy, no? In simple terms, this is an online community that sits behind closed doors.

Of course, those of us that have been rattling around the web for a few years are probably wondering what all the fuss is about – “Nothing new here!” I hear you cry, “This is no different from a locked forum or private chat room.” So why the new name and why is it being treated like something new?

Well, that’s the key thing: it’s not new. As a concept, the private social network has been around for years. However, what is new is the way we interact with these online spaces, the demographic of those that are doing so and the technology that allows them to do it.

It’s probably safe to say that it’s the changes in technology that have been the real catalyst for this. On the user side of things, smartphones and tablets have changed how and where we interact with online content. Not only this, but the technology behind the websites themselves has also come on leaps and bounds in recent years.

The Value Of Connections

Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the number of connected users squared. In simple terms this means the bigger a network, the more value it has, right? Wrong. There is a distinct difference between people and nodes on a network.

Although many social networks seem to be designed and built with this in mind, it assumes all connections between all nodes to be equal. This is not the case with social networks, as the connections are of a personal and often emotional nature. I personally believe – and, it would appear, so do the creators of private social networking sites – that the value of a community is found in the strength of its connections, not its size. Smaller communities tend to have stronger connections and larger ones often weaker. This is evident not only online but outside the web also, where we tend to have very strong bonds with close family and small core groups of friends. The bond we have with our wider groups of friends, colleagues and associates naturally weakens as we move out from our inner circle.

Business Uses of Private Social Networks

The most obvious way businesses can make use of private social networks is for internal communication. Networks like Yammer and Sgrouples are designed with exactly this in mind. These kinds of networks can be very useful when working across multiple locations or in large project teams.

Private Social Networks for Marketing

Many marketers tend to look away from private social networks because it’s not easy to break into a closed group – though perhaps more to the point, is it ethical to do so? The immediate answer that springs to mind is no. If you don’t have a strong connection with other members of a private group, you probably shouldn’t be there and if you are, you probably won’t last long.

There are opportunities, but businesses and marketers need to be smarter. You can’t just join a private network as a business and start throwing your content at people. For a change, this is where the B2B world has it a little easier because you can join business networking groups as an individual, on behalf of your company. Modern B2B marketing tends to be more P2P. It’s not so simple in B2C because the brand (marketer) to consumer relationship is not interpersonal, thus making the connection weaker.

One example of smarter thinking in this area was when Nike partnered with Path allowing people to post their running maps to the network. Later they also added support for Nike’s Fuel Band to the network.

The Future

The shift isn’t exactly seismic, but whether it’s Path, Yammer or a closed Facebook groups, we all seem to be using private networks more and more.

Has the age of overshare finally overshared itself to death?

Lee Stacey on Google+