Jan 8, 2008

Social Standardization and the Death of Social Networks

"...we’re reaching an inflection point where some fundamental conceptions of the web (and social networks) need to change".
from Stop building social networks, by Chris Messina

It seems that everybody is predicting the end of something due to something else, typically calling the later a 'killer app'. Are VOIP and email replacing the phone and fax? Is social media replacing Google search, email, communication in general? Is IM replacing email? Well, who would have predicted that the trusty typewriter would disappear in the span of a few years? It seems many are making another prediction: Social Nets are on their way out, at least in their current configuration. In this post, I'll talk about the problems and proposed solutions.

Social Nets are hugely popular and are obviously doing something right. They were clearly a revolution in online communication and information sharing. Let's first list why people enjoy them. They allow you to:

  1. express yourself and try to look cool
  2. people-watch / voyeurism / "gawk at strangers"
  3. 'collect friends' and compete to see who has more
  4. waste time doing semi-fun alone stuff with apps, etc.
  5. keep in touch with existing friends (the primary network)
  6. make new friends, dates and business contacts (the largely unfulfilled promise of the 'network')
  7. manage your personal data
  8. exchange knowledge and information
  9. re-connect with old friends and colleagues

As for the negatives, here are some of the points mentioned on the blogosphere:

  1. 'Friend collecting' is not 'social'. No real communication takes place, and no real friends are made. Checkmarking someone as a friend is not being social. Not much relationship building going on.
  2. Information Overload is not reduced, quite the opposite: too many people, messages, spam, etc. There is a limit to our ability to absorb information: our internal filters cannot handle it.
    "There isn’t enough time in the day for any person to find value in what a 1,000 people have to say - our internal filters just won’t allow it. At some point all that information; whether it be valuable or just fluff, becomes nothing more than white noise".
    from Enough with the social crap I think I’m gonna puke, by Steven Hodson
  3. "Massive waste of time" / "It takes too much time" / 'Social Net Fatigue'
  4. Privacy concerns / 'abuse of trust'. Services track user activity on and off the service, and post some of those activities to the "friends". Combining information from multiple sources may reveal private information.
  5. Social nets are 'Walled Gardens'. They are not portable - information is trapped within the bounds of each service. New users must re-enter profile information, must search and re-add network contacts, and must reset notification and privacy preferences for each new social net joined.
  6. Social nets are by definition 'network-centric'. Most users are exposed only to friends of friends (i.e. two degrees of separation). This presents an obstacle to discovering true friends and contacts, most of the potential being outside of your network.
  7. No Business Model beyond popularity and possibly advertising. Also, because new users on social networks often misrepresent themselves and enter false personal information, demographic data for advertisers is therefore unreliable.
  8. The "superficial emptiness"
  9. The "what's next?" phenomenon (after exhausting the novelty of the site) / Lack of Innovation
  10. Not granular enough - no ability to group friends and contacts in categories, or indicate how close or trustworthy those relationships are.
  11. Tired of having to add friends or accept friend requests in all of these networks.
  12. Use a given service only because that's where your friends are.

Proposed Solutions:

Many feel that Identity/Info concepts like OpenID, OpenSocial, FOAF, the 'Semantic Web', Microformats, have great potential in solving a few of the above problems.

"a distributed, user-centric identity scheme would destroy almost every "walled garden" social software application on the web".
from Identity Management Will Destroy Social Software, by Brian 'Bex' Huff

The idea is that each internet user would have a single universal and portable profile that would be used and understood by all services, thereby elimiating the need to enter and configure the same information and connections on every new service. Ideally, this would have the effect of removing the walls between services, creating a single large community or 'cloud' where "relationships transcend networks/documents".

The social and data islands that dot the internet can clearly be helped by some kind of standardized profile that can be uploaded to (and modified by) each service. The burden of registration and establishing relationships would be greatly reduced. Such a profile can grow to include all the data that a person might share, including photos and information, music, movie, web site favorites, etc. As long as all services agreed on standardization, this should work pretty well. As an example, browser standardization is largely successful - though differences do exist and can be frustrating for developers and surfers alike.

The Next Revolution:

Schemas, however, will not solve most of the issues mentioned above, and some are made worse (like privacy concerns). Some even argue that standardization and identity aggregation would not be entirely apprieciated. As much as schemas depend on FOAF information, most of the problems with social networks will remain. If one really wants to 'kill' social nets, one needs to get rid of the 'net' part, i.e. the degrees of separation. What is lacking in the current data islands and the proposed schema solutions is a way of harnessing the true power of the collective to actually reduce information overload and increase discovery. The next revolution in content and relationship discovery can only arise with a completely new kind of information filtration and recommender technology.

"The social web will be powered by recommender systems".
Open Issues in Recommender Systems
John Riedl, Bilbao Recommenders School, 2006

The true power of the collective can only be realized with the proper integration of social media, new universal discovery techniques, and associated detailed portable identity and personalization info. The result is a Social Web based on one degree of separation: all people and things are related to each other directly, with each such relationship differing only in type and strength. More on this new paradigm shortly.

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