Earlier this week I talked about the promise of social search as potential path toward monetization for Facebook. Social search, in which you rely on the expertise of your social network to find answers, is intriguing and potentially disruptive. The idea of turning to a trusted network of peers for higher quality answers to questions is powerful, but it is also not without problems.
Though I can get excited about the possibilities of social search applications, as I’ve written here, it won’t ever replace traditional search. One of the reasons for that is that only a fairly narrow set of searches make sense for social applications. Another reason is that maintaining a social network is a lot harder than just entering your search query into Google.
Social search only works when you’re connected to people who have expertise in the specific topics that you’re querying about. And it only works when the people you’re connected to want to share their expertise with you. Building those social networks and maintaining them so that they remain useful and ready for you when you need them takes a good deal of effort.
HelpWith, a Twitter application from the people at TweetApp, hopes to address that second issue. HelpWith is a simple app with a potentially powerful, if ultimately flawed, idea. The way it works is that people follow the @HelpWith Twitter account and tweet questions to group of followers as a whole. When you see a question coming down the pipeline that you can answer, you tweet a response back at the asker.
The idea makes sense: you get the benefits of social search, with a lot less effort, because the social network is pre-built and maintained by the community. But it also falls down for a couple of reasons:
- Noisy – Though just 125 people follow @HelpWith right now and the service hasn’t seen much use, if it caught on, it is easy to imagine that it could get very noisy, very quickly.
- Still Strangers – While HelpWith assembles a social graph for you to lean on without the effort of building your network from scratch, it isn’t clear why that is any better than relying on algorithmic Google searches or ratings from a vertical search engine — they all rely on strangers.
The good news is that Twitter could address these issues by creating the concept of groups and implementing filters. Groups would allow like minded individuals to band together and share expertise, which would lower the barrier to creating a helpful social network. While filters would allow users to subscribe to discussion streams in their area of expertise (and to target questions to the appropriate users).
So in the end, HelpWith probably won’t ultimately be overly useful as a social search application, but with some help from Twitter the barriers to entry for users to make social search feasible and useful could be lowered drastically.