The Ownership of Connection

There are many online social networks that vie for our attention. They help connect us in new and innovative ways. But the true value of connection is dependent on each of us – to build something of value out of these many loose connections.

While we may focus one network or another – Facebook, Twitter, and the like – these services do not own the connections between people.

Two early social networks are in their final phase of unraveling, a de-evolution of the promise of how the web will connect us:

Sure other networks have usurped them, and through them, we remain connected in new ways. But these networks continue to change as well: the current top-dog in the online social media space, Facebook, is rolling out new ways to monetize those of us who use it.

Social networks are created, they are invested in, bought, sold, merged, and eventually taken away. Sure, I don’t use MySpace anymore, but I imagine someone still does. Someone who has devoted years to connecting with others there, and now it will be sold, reimagined, assimilated, and combined with other services.

So with Facebook’s insane valuation of $50 billion – what is it they own – what is it they produce?

Really, it’s us.

Sure, they have some software, and it’s very good software. But it’s useless without us.

Likewise, content farms such as Demand Media are realizing this: Google Traffic to Demand Media Sites Down 40 Percent. They have built a small empire of online content, but a large portion of it relies on Google to find an audience. So they own content, but not the connection.

Evidently, aol’s Patch websites are looking to hire nearly 8,000 bloggers in the span of a week. But it will take far less than a week to let those bloggers go when aol decides to change course yet again.

Businesses get excited about platforms like these, because they are an easy way to organize – to productize – us. You and me.

Why did Huffington Post sell for $315 million? Many reasons, but chief among them was an army of writers who worked for free, and the attention that we all gave them.

The human connection is rare and valuable. It is ephemeral, requires a ton of resources to create and maintain. This is why companies go through massive layoffs. Because the people are their biggest expense. They are also a company’s most flexible resource. When you lay off 5 people from a 10 person team, the company knows that the remaining 5 people will somehow get 90% of the work done with half the resources. People are funny that way.

You have goals. I have goals.

What I have been very interested in recently is how people come together to help each other reach their goals. Beyond just “connecting” via social networks – following and friending – how one person can help another, with ideas, expertise, and motivation. Not passively, but actively. How can we look beyond the halo effect of “I shared a link on Twitter – I helped inform and inspire people because of it.” Rather, actively strengthening the connections we have, understanding the goals we share in common, and working together in a coordinated fashion to help each other reach them.

This becomes even more interesting when considering how GROUPS come together to build lasting connections as they work collectively towards their goals.

This week wrapped up an eight week course I taught for writers called Build Your Author Platform. It was an online class, consisting of a virtual classroom, forum, conference calls, videos, lectures, and homework. A group of us came together with similar goals, and eight weeks later, not only felt as though we progressed towards them, but that we created bonds with each other. So much so that the students nearly demanded I create a way for us to remain connected – to continue to work together. (I did create a new way for us to do that.)

This really fascinates me – how our lives are journeys, and how we come to rely on those who share this experience with us. We learn together, and through that, we become closer.

I do see that happening in social media too – on Twitter and Facebook – but it is often the product of individual initiative to make this happen. Sure, these companies help us connect, but they don’t OWN the connections between us. It is up to each of us to decide whether to connect, how we connect, and the long-term value of those connections. That a Twitter follower can become a lifelong friend. That a Facebook friend will become someone whose advice you actively seek.

Sure, these connections may start on Twitter or they might be extended on Facebook. But it’s a personal choice to do something with those connections – something beyond status updates and sharing links.

I keep this in mind every day in my business. As I move towards launching new classes for writers and extending the value that has been created with existing and past students, I am always looking for ways to bring us together beyond simply sharing information and moving through a curriculum. That working together will be the catalyst for reaching our collective goals – a resource and connection that lasts a lifetime.

As amazed as I am with the power of social networks to connect us – the most powerful way to extend those connections is up to each of us – to make an effort to truly connect as people, not just ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ – to create something together than goes beyond what software can provide. That these connections are owned by each of us, and what we do with them determines the shape of our lives.