Reid Hoffman: Not All Tech Is Social (Think Toilets); Being Better Humans Is the Key

4/26/12Follow @gthuang

It’s amazing who you can run into just crossing the street around MIT. Yesterday morning, it was Silicon Valley legend Reid Hoffman (see photo below), the co-founder, executive chairman, and former CEO of LinkedIn, and now a partner at venture firm Greylock Partners.

Hoffman was in town to speak at the MIT Media Lab’s 2012 Spring Event, a two-day, star-studded affair that I was fortunate enough to score a ticket to. I was particularly interested to hear Hoffman’s talk about the future of social technologies—just one of many topics from the day. In addition to his distinguished record of entrepreneurship, company-building, and startup investment (Facebook, Zynga), he is also one of the more philosophical and deep-thinking techies you will ever find (Oxford does that to a man).

Hoffman prefaced his talk with a rhetorical question about the explosion of social tech: “Have we gone socially mad, or are we mad about social?”

He framed the discussion of where social networks and social media are going by emphasizing the deeper significance of connections and interactions in our lives. “We’re social animals. It’s deep into our identity about how we discover meaning in life, what we think is important about what we do. Many, many of our activities are social. So what we’re seeing, I think, in this transformation is the increased humanity of what we’re doing on these technologies online. It’s not actually that everything is social. But some very deep things are.”

Here’s a recap of five issues he touched on, with some of my own commentary (keep in mind I think Facebook is one of the worst things ever invented):

1. What is a social technology? “It comes down to a couple simple concepts. One is identity. In the first iteration of the Web, it was much more classic for identity to be constructed as new, as anonymous,” Hoffman said. “But what happened in the social revolution is we started using our real identities… The social space is not just about communication, it’s about the shared space. So there’s been e-mail, SMS, phones for a while. Those are important, those are also versions of social technologies. But the fact that we get to a collective space…and we have a set of relationships in the electronic space that are folded in certain ways to create adjacency and connection with each other in ways that are different from the physical world… We begin to have this dual layer between this world which we’re navigating in, and a social layer that is also present with us and constantly connected.”

We’ve all come a long way, he said. “In 2003, when I was starting to do these things, I had a bunch of arguments with folks in Silicon Valley who said, ‘No, no, social is a feature, something you add in to Match.com or something.’ The argument, which I think has played out, is that it’s a platform. It’s a way that creates all kinds of different applications that help us navigate the world.”

2. Has social technology played out? Looking at Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and so on, there is a tendency to think, “We’ve seen the social thing, what’s next?” Hoffman argued that “because it’s so deep in human experience, I think we’re still just beginning to see what’s happening.” Of course, he has a strong financial interest in the sector. And in the past six months he has made investments in a couple of different social-tech startups: Wrapp (social gift cards) and Edmodo (social networks for K-12 education). These companies are “both very deeply about how social technology is transforming life,” he said.

Hoffman pointed out how social sites are still evolving. “Every year or two, there’s a major new enhancement in terms of how that plays … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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