Social Networks are Dead
(Up to: Technology Vs Evolution )
... Long Live Social Networking!
I notice that the CEO of Friendster has left the company, which picks up on something I've been wondering for a bit - are the "new breed" of SNS dying? It may be just me, but tribe.net doesn't seem all that busy either, and I haven't heard a great deal of fuss over things like Orkut, et al either. Maybe it's time to finally look back with hindsight and see which direction things have gone in.
The article above notes that SNS are becoming more "specific", turning to particular purposes and audiences, although personally I think that's more of a return to the "old" way of doing things - let's face it, the ability to search for people that match your set of interests really isn't all that new.
In my view, there's a fair amount of distortion when it comes to the popularity of SNS. Initial take-up is often driven by factors different to those behind long-term sustainability, with numbers of subscribers being increased firstly by hype and an idea of "exclusivity". This Reezle post in Tribe is a recent example of this idea, and at time of writing, there still isn't a reply explaining what exactly it offers that's different to other SNS.
However, what gets overestimated is the ability, once this hype has died down, to maintain this viral attraction. Why? To put it simply, I think one reason is that the potential links between strangers are often over valued. In other words, the focus placed on creating strong connections within a service is out of proprtion to the focus that we ourselves place on those connections, mentally. For instance, in AIM I have always been annoyed by being forced to have a "Buddy" list, when many people on the list I would never consider as being a "buddy" (or even simply a "friend") - Americanisations aside, the point is that it is in the service's interests to form strong links between people (that being the idea of the service), but that's not how most people operate.
Naturally, I think, we create a "hierarchy" of links, with a small number of strong links to people we know and trust, and a larger number of weak links to people we know a lot less, and maybe don't necessarily like.
Traditionally, on-line communities and technologies have focused on either end of these - either to reinforce and grow around the strong links that already exist, or to provide a way to gather cheap weak links. The majority of the success of e-mail and IMs, for instance, is based upon giving new functionality to connections that already exist. Other communities, focusing on particular subjects for instance, allow weak links to develop around their topic, or common interest. One in a thousand time, a weak link might develop into a strong link, but for most people, most of the time, weak links remain weak.
The SNS New Breed though sits somewhere in the middle - trying to take these weak links, and force them into becoming strong links. Some people like this, and these are often the "networkers", those who flock to services when they start up and continue to use them as time goes on. But this is still a minority, and so it becomes harder to turn this into a sustainable business model as time goes on.
I don't see any of this fundamental network structure changing, which leads me to think that in lots of ways, the utopian ideal of SNS is often misguided. Compare, however, the rise and rise of RDF and XML feeds, which transcend the ideas of content and branding. Rather than attempt to force people together, this other "new breed" of link technology concentrates merely on making communication easier - the important thing is that it leaves the ideas - what it's being used for - up to the users. To borrow from tao, it attempts nothing, and so gets used for many things. In other words, RDF/RSS have, IMHO, contributed more towards a new era of "sociality" than the vast majority of self-proclaimed social networking sites. Indeed, the latter have mostly been built on the former while taking much of the trumpet for themselevs - a site "incorporating XML" makes it sound like it's almost a privilege for a feed to be used, rather than a necessary service to be provided if a site is to survive these days.
I think the "holy grail", of taking weak social ties and turning them into strong, sustained bonds is dying out quickly. A saturated marketplace, inflated business hype and misplaced enthusiasm are now a reality. Fortunately, the few really good/novel ideas live on - photo blogging/sharing, collaborative writing, etc have been tweaked and tailored and stretched into new life. A certain amount of the SNS "aether" will return to the "old ways" - centred around topics of conversation, for example.
But I think the technology is ready to provide a new breeding ground of ideas - ones centred less around throwing people into contact with one another, and instead allowing us to slowly "merge" with other people's spaces through what we say, rather than (or possibly as well as) who we are. I think we'll see the emergence of more "featurettes" and Extremely-Small-Services (ESS?) that slot neatly into our existing infrastructures - tiny bits of activity that augment our main drive, filling in and sitting alongside the things we already find work well.
The XML paradigm is one block of this, and illustrates one of the main draws of such an approach - customisation. The smaller the content, the easier it is to devote to either the person it's being pulled from, or the person who's doing the pulling. del.icio.us, for example, does both of these, depending on whether you're looking at yourself, or someone else.
The second aspect is the client making a swing back towards complexity. While the server-client split may seem attractive in some technical aspects, the latest trend in user-side processing (to add features, to over-ride style/functionality, etc.) empowers the same idea as above - that the user is in control - of what they view, and of how they view it. This is a big shift.
I think there's scope for this to mould the way we look at the on-line world, in the sense that the disruptive technology we see already, such as blogging, is only the beginning. Social Networking, while always heavily represented at some inherent level on-line, now has real potential - not to join random strangers talking about random crap, but to wholely influence the way we see the world. Who we talk to and what we read will spin together and resemble each other more and more - to the point where "sociality" is ubiquitous, and the netoworking/content-reading tools we use "understand" (or perhaps rather "take into account") how we as social beings work.
Weak ties are here to stay, and we should revel in our newfound ability to make them, break them and channel data through them.
(See also: Social Network Business Models )