Stop building social networks

I started writing this post August 8th. Now that Dave Recordon is at Six Apart and blogging about these things and Brad Fitzpatrick has moved on to Google, I thought I should finally finish this post.

I fortuitously ran into Tim O’Reilly, Brad Fitzpatrick and Dave Recordon in Philz yesterday as I was grabbing a cup of coffee. They were talking about some pretty heady ideas and strategies towards wrenching free one’s friends networks from the multiple social networks out there — and recombining them in such a way that it’d be very hard to launch a closed down social network again.

The idea isn’t new. It’s certainly been attempted numerous times, with few successful efforts to show for it to date. I think that Brad and Dave might be on to something with their approach, though, but it begs an important question: once you’ve got a portable social network, what do you do with it?

Fortunately, Brian Oberkirch has been doing a lot of thinking on this subject lately with his series on , starting with a post on designing portable social networks lead up to his most recent post offering some great tips on how to prepare your site for the day when your users come knocking for a list of their friends to populate their new favor hang.

In his kick-off post, Brian laid the problem of social network fatigue as stemming from the:

  • Creation of yet another login/password to manage
  • Need to re-enter profile information for new services
  • Need to search and re-add network contacts at each new service
  • Need to reset notification and privacy preferences for each new service
  • Inability to manage and add value to these networks from a central app/work flow

I think these are the fundamental drivers behind the current surge of progress in user-centric identity services, as opposed to the aging trend of network-centric web services. If Eric Schmidt thinks that Web 3.0 will be made up of small pieces loosely joined and “in the cloud”, my belief, going back to my time with Flock, is that having consistent identifiers for the same person across multiple networks, services or applications is going to be fundamental to getting the next evolution of the web right.

Tim made the point during our discussion that at one point in computing history, SQL databases embedded access permissions in the database itself. In modern times, access controls have been decoupled from the data and are managed, maintained and federated without regard to the data itself, affording a host of new functionality and stability simply by adjusting the architecture of the system.

If we decouple people and their identifiers from the networks that currently define them, we start moving towards greater granularity of privacy control through mechanisms like global social whitelists and buddy list blocklists. It also means that individuals can solicit services to be built that serve their unique social graph across any sites and domains (kind of like a fingerprint of your relationship connections), rather than being restrained to the limited freedom in locked down networks like Facebook. And ultimately, it enables cross-sharing content and media with anyone whom you choose, regardless of the network that they’re on (just like email today, where you can send someone on Yahoo.com email from Gmail.com or even Hotmail.com, and so on, but with finer contact controls). The result is that the crosscut of one’s social network could be as complete (or discreet) as one chose, and that rather than managing it in a social network-centric way, you’d manage it centrally, just as you do your IM buddy list, and it would follow you around on any site that you visit.

So it’s become something of a refrain in the advice that we’ve been giving out lately to our clients that they should think very critically about what social functionality they should (and shouldn’t) build directly into their sites. Rather than assuming that they should “build what Flickr has” or think about which features of Facebook they should absorb, the better question, I think, is to assume that in the next 6-8 months (for the early adopters at least) there’s going to be a shift to these portable networks. Where the basics will mostly be better covered by existing solutions and will not need to be rebuilt. Where each new site — especially those with specific functionality like TripIt (disclosure: we’ve consulted TripIt) — will need to focus less on building out its own social network and more on how social functionality can support their core competency.

We’re still in the early stages of recognizing and identifying the components of this problem. Thus far, the Microformats wiki says:

Why is it that every single social network community site makes you:

  • re-enter all your personal profile info (name, email, birthday, URL etc.)?
  • re-add all your friends?

In addition, why do you have to:

  • re-turn off notifications?
  • re-specify privacy preferences?
  • re-block negative people?

AKA “social network fatigue problem” and “social network update/maintenance problem”.

I’ve yet to be convinced that this is a problem that the “rest of the world” beyond social geeks is suffering, but I do think that the situation can be greatly improved, even for folks who are used to abandoning their profiles when they forget their passwords. For one thing, the world today is too network-centric, and not person-centric. While I do think people should be able to take on multiple personas online (professional, casual, hobby, family, and so on), I don’t think that that means that they should have those boundaries set for them by the networks they join. Instead, they should maintain their multiple personas as separate identifiers: email addresses, IM addresses and/or profile URLs (i.e. OpenIDs). This allows for handy separation based on the way people already materialize themselves online. Projects like NoseRub and even the smaller additions of offsite-identifiers on sites like Digg, Twitter and Pownce also acknowledge that members think of themselves as being more faceted than a single URL indicates.

This is a good thing. And this is where social computing needs to go.

We need to stop building independent spider webs of sticky siloed social activity. We need to stop fighting the nature of the web and embrace the design of uniform resource identifiers for people. We need to have a user agent that actually understands what it means to be a person online. A person with friends, with contacts, with enemies, with multiple personas and surfaces and ambitions and these user agents of the social web need to understand that, though we live in many distinct places on the web and interact with many different services, that we as people still have one unified viewport through which we understand the world.

Until social networks understand this reality and start to adapt to it, the problem that Dave is describing is only going to continue to get worse for more and more people until truly, the problem of social network fatigue will spread beyond social geeks and start cutting into the bottom lines of companies that rely on the regularity of “sticky eyeballs” showing up.

While I will always and continue to bet on the open web, we’re reaching an inflection point where some fundamental conceptions of the web (and social networks) need to change. Fortunately, if us geeks have our way, it’ll probably be for the general betterment of the whole thing.

17 thoughts on “Stop building social networks”

  1. Chris:
    Great post, and well thought through. I agree with you for the social network early adopters this is becoming a problem. But what of the B2B type networks I’m now seeing customers asking for. It is unlikely that someone joining a company network or one for a specific industry wants to pull their Facebook profile to populate their specific-function work forum and connection place.
    Or, a I missing something?

  2. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as well. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to sign up for new services, re-add friends (maybe they’ll join too, maybe not), and since most social networks thrive on people being able to do social stuff, you’d think it’d be in their best interests to assist that.

    One example is Twitter, Jaiku, and Pownce. I have accounts on all three, but I only use Twitter. Why? Because that’s where all of my friends are, and there’s not enough difference between the three services to make me move from one to the other.

    On the flip side, if I DID want to maintain all three, I’m not going to post what I’m doing to three services — I should be able to do it once, and have all of my friends on all three services get the updates. Web 2.0 enables stuff like this, but the ‘3.0’ (as you put it) will be, IMO, the realization of it.

    I have some ideas on how to approach something like this in a very get-it-functional sort of way, but a project like this would need (1) backing by influential people, and (2) the resources to pull it off. Maybe we can talk further about this some other time?

  3. It’s odd to read about Tim O’Reilly being involved in an idea that’s so prosaic. He’s coming at the problem from completely the wrong angle.

    What they’re proposing is like making the roads out of rubber and the wheels out of stone or bitumen, all to save on tyre ware.

    However, I am at least relieved to read that there are others out their thinking about Social Network Fatigue as a genuine — and, ultimately solvable — problem.

    Yes, we need to move away from the many-islands-of-data concept, but do we embrace centralization instead?

    For me, OpenID is very close to the solution, but maybe we’re in need of the Semantic Web, which would then allow for ‘roaming rights’, maybe something like DNS, but for portable personal profiles.

    I’ve got an article lined up which will come in at the issue of Web3.0 (a lamentable iteration to a tiresome buzzword if ever there was) from a different point of view, but also similar in scope and complimentary to what’s been outlined here.

    All of which is encouraging stuff…

  4. Excellent post. Glad to hear we aren’t the only ones directing client focus toward core functionality and away from redundant social network functionality.

  5. @Howard Greenstein: I think this could easily apply to B2B networks, too. Maybe people won’t need their Facebook profile, but maybe they will want to have a pofile that they can migrate easily from one B2B network to another…I know I would like this.

  6. I have developed a global solution that can make the entire web people-centric and solves the issues you mentioned as well as many others. It is called the Private Identity Network (PIN) and details are available at replacegoogle.com.

    The Private Identity Network (PIN) creates a layer of abstraction around the existing Internet. Users who choose to use the PIN log on with their chosen Private Identity Provider (PIP) from any machine anywhere.

    Their PIP provisions their identities across the Internet according to the user’s preferences and the requirements of sites visited. So users can choose whether to be anonymous, use a pseudonym, or use their real name.

    The PIPs should be very profitable enterprises- they will know pretty much everything about their users and will sell access (but never actual user information) to marketers.

    User information will be protected by the competitiveness of the market for identity providers. PIPs will be in the trust business. Those that develop reputations and technical features that make them the most trustworthy will become the largest.

    The Private Identity Network is a network because all of the PIPs are securely connected to one another and to the Network Guardian. The Network Guardian accredits and regulates the PIPs and, most importantly, maintains a database of very limited user information (name, date of birth, place of birth) for all users across the network.

    The “secret sauce” of the PIN is that all users must be natural persons, submit evidence to their PIP that they are who they claim to be, and may only have one active account at any time. This creates durable reputations and will change the way people interact on the Internet.

    If this interests you, please read replacegoogle.com carefully. If I’m barking up the wrong tree, let me know exactly where. I have never worked in the IT world so there may be numerous factors I have not considered.

  7. The progress of the web, in my opinion, goes towards unification of different identities to a one comprehensive identity. The best offer available these days is 8hands, the profile aggregator, which allows you to manage your social network, combining all social networks to one, and letting you communicate with your friends, no matter if they are FB friends or Flickr friends.

  8. How about this new web service:

    http://anonimity.net/

    “anonimity.net is an ideal get away from social networking apps. its a one of its kind testbed for anonimity on the web with comments, tagcloud and postflood.”

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