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The Future of Social Networking

This was an old post I vaguely remember starting aimlessly which quickly turned into an essay, I decided it was time to dust it off and see if some of my musings and gripes about social networking are still relevant over two years later!

One could write a diatribe about social networking and the continued popularity of Facebook, so I’ll try my best to stick to the point. What I want to discuss is the users perspective of social networking. When people discovered Facebook, most people thought it was great, and its not hard to see why; with such a huge membership it is easy to connect and communicate with friends across the globe. After the initial honeymoon period, concerns started to be raised about the direction Facebook was being taken. Firstly in terms of visual appeal and secondly in terms of privacy policy. Currently most Facebook users now realise, the design of the system is beyond their control. While the content was very ‘web 2.0′, the interface was not.

People still like Facebook and use it with great regularity. Even pessimistic individuals such as myself begrudgingly admit it is a useful resource. However depending upon your opinions and the level of thought you’ve given it, there are issues that present themselves which you just have to accept if you use the platform. Most importantly, if you want something to stay private, do not post it on the internet. No-one can fully rely on the privacy policy of the place you have posted it or their privacy controls. That said if you weigh up the risk and usefulness of posting whatever information it is you want online then you’re restoring the natural state of things in everyday life. You don’t tell everyone all your personal details, you actually think about it before you offer up information in person, and you’re online behaviour should be no exception.

The larger issue with social networking sites and applications is that they all proscribe in some way how you should communicate with others on the internet. Because the majority of social network users are not software developers they will never completely define how these things work. Diaspora is a currently un-released open-source project designed to open up social networking, but this fundamental divide remains in that not everyone is a developer. This is still however, in my view, vastly superior to the users having no control whatsoever. The end result remains to be seen, but I am quite optimistic it will change some aspects of social networking.

The privacy issues do still remain; there’s no getting away from the problem of posting information online other than not to do it. Interestingly one of the supposed advantages of Diaspora is that you can easily choose which groups of people you want to publish information to. Well that’s a step in the right direction, but it still makes the assumption that a person wants to compartmentalise their lives in that way. Essentially, pretentious as I may sound for suggesting it, the problem decomposes into a philosophical argument relating to the digitisation of our ordinary analogue lives.

In reality we make choices all the time relating to who to tell about what. In the virtual world emails, instant messaging and video links allow us to best represent this method of communication. The publishing of information on a web-site however seems incompatible with this analogue choice of specifically who to tell about things. It would be very unnatural to choose out of a list of people who to tell every time one published something. Looking at this problem as a developer, I don’t see any way one can easily solve this problem with a snazzy user interface.

The fact remains that our real social life is cannot be digitised – we only ‘share’ information when we physically happen to be in groups. For example – people are invited to events one-on-one via telephone, email or face to face communication. Social networking presents a model where invites are sent through ‘notifications’ and a shared ‘register’ of attendees is published with the event information. This doesn’t represent real world activity, I haven’t ever heard of people all signing up to a birthday party on a physical piece of paper. The process in reality is much more fluid. Software developers may recognise this as a mismatch in the abstraction of a virtual entity from a physical entity.

What I’m getting at here is that ‘social networking’ is a relatively meaningless phrase. What it describes is a purely virtual form of social interaction, which is nothing like social interaction in reality. I’m not suggesting we need a better phrase for it – social networking is there now and will stick. However we do need to recognise the difference between passive sharing of personal information in a virtual web-based world, and active social interaction in the real word. The former is definitely convenient; a way of socially interacting at a distance, in one’s own time. The major drawback is the lack of control you have over how it works. The latter is much richer and more rewarding, but requires more time and effort.

It will be a long time before the digital experience of social networking can compete with the analogue experience of physical social interaction. And there is another important point to ponder – is that really what we actually want out of social networking?

Or do we simply want a convenient way to essentially post information to a web-site? That’s all I can think I want out of social networking, and while the convenience of it is not to be underestimated, I think this has largely been achieved in an extremely successful way. If a majority hold this view then the numerous start-ups and companies who are aiming to ‘be the next Facebook’, and introduce more innovation, have an extremely difficult task ahead of them. They would need to introduce something new, something which people never even knew they wanted until they saw it. Until then social networking appears to be a cul-de-sac in terms of innovation.

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