David Weinberger asks whether social software matters, though I think he's talking more specifically about software for managing social networks, i.e. web sites like LinkedIn, Ryze, Tribe.net, Friendster, etc. David says these sites will be more useful if they integrate with external solutions, and I can imagine the web services wheels turning in developers' heads as they consider how to make this happen. Other important points:
Connections beyond second degree have dubious value, because
social relationships aren't transitive
social relationships aren't formal, and
social networks are always implicit. "The ones constructed explicitly are always – yes, always – infected with a heavy dose of social bullshit. Its like thinking that the invitiation list for your wedding actually reflects your circle of friends and relatives."
Real social networks are physical. "...if you want to get at the real social networks, youre going to have to figure them out from the paths that actual feet have worn into the actual social carpet."
These are important points, and they explain why social network sites that encourage physical meetings (thinking of Ryze) may be more robust. My personal experience has been that social networks are better at reinforcing existing relationships than in finding and building new ones. LinkedIn may be an exception, because it's set up to facilitate contacts through the degrees in your network, so if I'm connected to Kevin Bacon because he knows Meryl Streep who knows Woody Allen who knows David Weinberger, I could request an introduction through David, who would pass the request to Woody, who would pass it to Meryl, who would pass it to Kevin. This is harder to do the greater the degree of separation - Meryl might balk, saying "Wait, I don't know anything about this Lebkowsky guy. I trust you, Woody, but I'm uncomfortable passing this on." (Then again, if Meryl didn't know me, but she'd been reading my blog, she might not balk... so there are variations in the reliability of the system.)
One aspect of social network systems that David doesn't mention is the group-forming capability, e.g. networks on Ryze, and tribes on Tribe.net. These systems allow anyone to create a group, and others can join as they find it. Tribe.net lists hudreds of tribes, and each tribe has generally listings (which are like classified ads), discussion boards, and events listings). I think this group-forming capability may be more valuable, in that you have virtual community spaces where relationships can emerge. Meetup.com is worth mentioning in the group-forming context, because it was set up to facilitate groups that are explicitly physical. Wonder what Meetup would be like if it included a very robust set of virtual community/social networking tools?
I don't know. Consider I live in Trinidad and Tobago, and my present 'social network' - not through any site - consists of an international group of people I haven't met yet. Certainly, we hopefully will meet sometime - we plan on it - but does that mean that my social network is less robust?
Perhaps the context of the relationship determines whether in person meetings are an important factor.