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 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 in our social life. Most people forget all the controversy when Facebook introduced News Feed—it was like, ‘Wait, this is entirely different,’” he said. The evolution of social tech is “not just sharing of information, but of connection, of emotion, of shared experience. The ways that that can be deepened with relatively even simple technologies, I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surfaces of these.”

(I’m all for making experiences deeper, but I’m not sure humans’ addictive and narcissistic nature will allow for that when there are so many quicker options for gratification.)

3. Do we have one or many identities? “It’s a false dichotomy. On the one hand, we clearly have one identity,” Hoffman said. “On the other hand, we actually have different ways of expressing that identity in a different context… My identity as a student or teacher is different from my identity at home with my family, is different from my identity with my colleagues at work… There’s this whole nature of the different shape of how these social technologies work in each of these different spaces.”

(That’s all well and good, but online privacy is an increasingly important issue that many people overlook. As companies like Facebook and Google try to maximize ad revenues by combining user data in new ways, consumers need to be on the alert.)

4. Does every company need a social strategy? “We’re all working and living in a networked world. So there’s a whole set of ways in which the world around you is amplified by increasing the transparency and openness of these networks. That means you have to adjust to them in your strategies—everything from how you do innovation through open networks to the notion of how do you interface with your employees, to how do you look at the supply chains in your business, how is your brand, how do you talk with your customers,” he said. “But when you get to thinking about whether or not every product needs to be social or not, you have to think about the primitives of what is social—identity, relationships, the social space—and does that apply to your product? Is it something intrinsic in the genetics of your product?”

“As much as the Japanese are known for amazing technological toilets, the likelihood that there will be social toilets is very low. That might be a vaguely scary idea,” he joked. “You have to distinguish between when do you have wisdom of the crowd, and when do you have the madness of masses. A lot of that comes down to elements of design—about how you design a network, how you design communication, how you design the shape of the problems that go out to the network and the shape of the answers that come back.”

(Moderator John Hockenberry asked Hoffman whether he has passed on the “FlushedIn” concept. Hoffman said that, thankfully, no one has pitched him that one yet.)

5. How to think about the future design of social tech? “Madness is when we diverge from the pack, but of course madness is also when we agree with the pack too much, e.g., ‘the world is flat,’” he said. “How do we evolve as a society so that the level of information and connectivity in terms of how we solve problems evolves, and helps us evolve from madness to sanity? When you’re looking at what is the right design of these social architectures, they help us be better humans… There’s ways that you enhance it that helps us be, both individually and socially, better than we were before. That’s the design goal.”

Drilling down on this point: “Social products only work when they are very deep in human experience. One of the things I said when I try to wake up MBAs to thinking about how to deal with social is, ‘I invest in one or more of the seven deadly sins.’ What’s deep in the nature of human experience and human psychology? Family is an important area where there’s a social platform; work is an important area; media is an important area. But there’s a limited set of areas where we fundamentally have a very broad set of social experience.” (Compare that to investor Dave McClure’s startup advice here.)

Finally, on where social fits in with individual work: “There’s a whole set of activities that we do that, even though they could be social, they’re essentially done solo,” he said. “You’re sitting in front of a computer or you’re building a piece of art, and you’re doing that by yourself. That interplays with, you collaborate with other people, you show it to them, you get ideas. So you move between an individual activity and a social activity kind of in a loop… I think the value actually comes in in things that we do, and in things that we share with other people. I think it’s a combination.”

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

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