Who needs social networks anyway?


OK, that’s a somewhat controversial title.

Admittedly, I’m a big fan of social networks – as long as they serve a purpose. For the MySpace crew (despite claims of a large over-30 audience), it’s way to both express your individuality *and* show off your connectedness with a large group of friends (somewhat paradoxical but desirable things, particularly when you’re 16). For LinkedIn, the objective is all about professional networking – find a job, business partner or new employee. Avid Facebook users take advantage of great features to keep tabs on each other, find out who’s going where to do what, and generally maintain their social life online – all very useful as a busy college student.

Blogs are similarly meaningful because the platform is inherently temporal and recurring. If a blogger is an interesting person, or at least has interesting things to say on a given topic – which isn’t unlikely given “long tail” content production and consumption enabled by the global internet – she can attract readers and build an audience through regular posts on familiar topics.

But why does social media need to be confined to a proprietary platform? I have more respect for Flickr and YouTube than MySpace and Facebook in this regard because they provide tools for people to express themselves using a particular form of media, a toolset which “plays well” with others. I can add my pics or videos (or others’ pics or videos) to my webpage, whether it be hosted by MySpace or Six Apart. Further, I can readily add people whose opinions or other writings I respect to my blogroll (on blogs at least), enabling visitors to my webpage to connect with other people that I find interesting.

I came across MyBlogLog a while back, and today’s post on TechCrunch by Marshall Kirkpatrick reminded me of its merits again. As opposed to a blogroll – links I’ve explictly added to my webpage, pointing toward people whose webpages I have visited – MyBlogLog automatically adds links to my webpage that point towards people who have come to visit my webpage. It generates a listing of my “fans” as opposed to people whom I’m a “fan” of, in short.

I think MyBlogLog represents a critical step towards replicating and improving upon the basic feature sets offered by most social networking websites. The future of social media isn’t about social networking sites per se. The ability to establish an online identity and (if desired) carry that forward with new friends and new content over time is critical. No one wants to fill out a 15th social network profile from scratch, and users should not be locked into a particular platform to do maintain their profile online. There seem to be some initiatives to embrace this philosophy – witness Marc Canter’s open source social networking platform, People Aggregator, as well as things like the decentralized OpenID identity framework and structured blogging efforts.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but it seems that we’re headed toward a future in which people create their online identity and then mix-and-match offerings from a variety of online vendors, both embedded (writings, photos, music, videos) and linked (favorite sites, articles or people of interest, friends’ profiles, readers’ profiles) to build out a representation of “who they are” in the broadest sense.

Social networking could well provide this. But once (1) the various “widgets” of my online identity are outsourced to ventures with a core competency in a particular area, and (2) I can take that identity elsewhere if I’m not satisfied (and I think market forces will ensure this eventually), how can an all-in-one social network differentiate itself?

Strategically, apart from fierce viral growth, one of the strengths of the proprietary social network is switching costs, i.e. it’s a real pain to go elsewhere once I’ve crafted an online profile, created or uploaded content and established a network of friends. Nonetheless, I’m hopeful and confident that the merits of the open network will win out in time.


4 Responses to “Who needs social networks anyway?”

  1. 1 What is and isn’t Web 2.0? « Sampled + Sorted
  2. 2 The social (meta) network « Sampled + Sorted
  3. 3 the meta-network arrives? « Sampled + Sorted
  4. 4 Facebook goes open « Sampled + Sorted

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