The Most Valuable Social Network / by Nate Westheimer

The most valuable online social network I belong to doesn't have profile pages, doesn't stream music, doesn't have an application development platform and has no pre-determined "friending" mechanism. This social network isn't SEO optimized, has a Consensus Master instead of a Web Master, organizes some of the most innovative industry events, gives back more information than you put into it, and connects you to the best jobs in your field.

What social network am I talking about?

nextNY, of course, and as of today it's 1,000 members strong! (On a personal note, next week marks the 1 year anniversary that I joined the group, forever changing my life!)

As I was moving into my new apartment I began thinking about all the social networks I am a part of (scores and scores!) and what sort of value I get from being a part of them. This pondering came after I borrowed a milk crate from The Roasting Plant to move small kitchen things and borrowed a create drill set from Russ and Daughters so we could reinstall shelves. What a wonderful social network of LES retail stores I had built up!

The one online social network that kept coming to mind as I extended this thought was nextNY, though it didn't have the markings of a traditional online social network.

With this is mind, I thought that if "friending," "poking" and "blinged out" profile pages aren't the markings of a valuable social network, then looking at nextNY as an example could points to what really does make a valuable online social network.

Here's what I came up with. I'd love it if others would post thoughts on their own blogs about what makes nextNY so great!

Influence over social life: When people new to online social networking ask questions about Facebook or MySpace they often ask, "do you actually meet people on those sites?!" While some people do, I think Facebook most popularly used a tool to manage existing offline social networks and their online presence is dictated by those offline networks.

nextNY is different because most sign-up for the mailing list knowing no one or only one or two people. From there, you hear about events, meet people at events, collaborate with like-minded folks, ultimately changing your personal offline social network.

I can't identify ways in which my life is truly different because of Facebook. I can count many ways my life is different because of nextNY.

Respect for the group: Respect is underrated. If you've been on the NY Tech Meetup list you'll notice that for the most part that list disastrous. People litter the list with spam and conversations which should be taken to a back-channel. There's absolutely no respect for the health of the listserv as a group. And this by no means is the fault of Meetup or our Meetup's organizers -- they have a wonderfully respectful social network -- but is instead has to do with the way folks on the list view it in relation to the group. With nextNY it's understood that our list the heart and soul of the group. But with other listservs it's just a feature for the group, and so it's trashed. Because people in nextNY care so deeply for the quality of the listserv, they respect it.

Clarity and purity of Purpose: nextNY exists as "a fun way to connect both socially and professionally with young people who have a stake in future of tech and new media in New York City." In that sentence we see that nextNY is about connecting and about sharing a collective investment in the future of NYC as a tech hub. While this is a broad mission it's a clear one. Also, because it's so much about community -- even about the community beyond the email list -- the result of taking part in the community is tangible. It's "I'm a member of nextNY to connect with people and to better our tech community."

Also, as far as purity of purpose goes, nextNY exists for nextNY. Sure it looks great on Charlie's resume that he founded this group, but that's not why it was founded or why it has taken off. No one makes money from nextNY. No one has ulterior motives for being a part of it or leading it. It's about as pure as it gets.

Lack of structure: The lack of structure I think is a huge reason nextNY is so valuable. With a flick of a mouse you can plan your own event, organize a demo day, invite people to cafeSlam, or make a community list of tech conferences. The fact that you don't have to get "approval" to do something with nextNY allows for maximum creativity and participation.

This lack of structure is not to be taken for granted. Every so often, someone posts on the list about the "need" for more structure. I did this last November when we were talking about a community blog and the issue was brought up again more recently. Every time this happens, however, "the old guard" protests and explains why no structure is better. Indeed it is.

Positive structuring forces: While there's no structure to nextNY there are structuring forces that hold the network together. Someone has passwords to the Google Group and the wiki. A few of us have the ability to approve blogs for the blog.nextny.org blog. And if someone starts abusing any of these community tools, there are a handful of people who can remove the negative forces.