Here Comes Trouble: A Social Directory

The declining relevance of telephone directories erased 95 percent of publisher RH Donnelley’s market capitalization over the last 12 months. Although Google’s free 1-800-GOOG-411 service may attract some share of the directory assistance business, the crux of the problem lies with the diminished standing of wired telephones in an increasingly crowded communications landscape. The demise of paper directories does not, however, mean there exists a clear alternative to accommodate the growing list of communication coordinates most people juggle. A “social directory” created by merging the telephone directory with the social networking model may provide a way forward.

Given the open-ended nature of the information that gets indexed, search engines remain poorly suited to the task of finding contact information. Success depends on a cleverly structured query; search engines do not, after all, distinguish contact information from other types of information. But while a directory with a relatively finite and narrow data set (e.g. contact information) would greatly increase the probability of success, the process of creating directories still awaits an Internet upgrade.

The standard model for directories fails with respect to mobile phones, email addresses and instant messaging screen names. Posting the Yellow Pages online retains the same city and state search limitations of the paper directories, and the infrequent publishing cycle of directories becomes unworkable at the current pace with which communication coordinates get added and subtracted. Further, the growth in communication options makes it impractical to rely on a single service provider directory. What makes much more sense in our Internet-heavy world is a user-generated directory in which individuals own and update their own listing.

The lack of a directory for mobile phone numbers traces to the fear of unwanted calls. A directory that supports authentication along the lines of social networks solves this problem. Keeping your number secret and employing Caller ID are poor substitutes for actually controlling who can call you. The social directory could implement an invite authentication process like any other social network. People already include some contact information in their social network profiles, but a purpose-built social directory could offer additional communication functionality.

The social directory represents a far more elegant solution than that of spamming friends with requests to update contact information through services like Plaxo. The social directory could make a social circle accessible via clickable links while hiding the actual contact information. Rather than giving out a telephone number or email address to a new acquaintance, users of a social directory would associate their listing with keywords (such as “plumber” or “dog lover”).

As the number of communication options increases, so does the burden of managing contact information, yet Internet-enabled directory options remain lacking. Google’s 60 percent share of Internet searches gives the company both gatekeeper status in the information Internet — not to mention a rich market capitalization. However, Google’s revenue represents less than a third of what the declining telephone directories generate in the U.S. alone. Riches await the infocom company that achieves gatekeeper status for the Internet’s communications applications.