The (Good or Bad) Seed of a Social Network

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The social atmosphere, usually created by the earliest patrons of a place, is what draws in other people.

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Any good club promoter knows that the best way to get cool/good-looking/rich people in the door is to have other cool/good-looking/rich people already inside. This lesson, however, does not receive its due in talking about our social networks. At a recent Google event, Jess Lee, the founder of Polyvore, a social shopping site, placed some of the blame for Google Plus' male-skewed site by noting that the "seed" of the site came from the company itself. Here's what Wired Business heard:

I have one theory, just a theory, I think the seed of that community is very very important. Polyvore was seeded on fashion forums. Google+ was actually seeded with Google employees, so it was tech, and honestly mostly male. That's part of how it grew --  those people invited their friends. Facebook started at colleges... Myspace probably started with music. It's all about the seed, and the seed for Google+ was different.

All too often, we come to technological or even biological explanations for why a particular social network is popular among a particular group of people. Women love Pinterest because of their brain chemistry! Women love Pinterest's simple and clean interface! Etcetera.

But what if the answer is simple and human, rather than complex and technological. What if it was Pinterest's seed that created a community that was both welcome and welcoming to women? The site's early heavy users were largely young women drawn from non-coastal areas. They set the site's tone, which then began a self-reinforcing process of more women gathering because more women were already gathered.

Obviously, there are a lot of reasons why social networks (like restaurants or other social institutions) succeed. But focusing exclusively on technology is like thinking only the restaurants with the best food succeed. The social atmosphere, usually created by the earliest patrons of a place, manufacture the glue that draws in other people.

All that to say: Choose your beta testers wisely.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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