While busy at work, I saw two of my ETC colleagues (student assistants) checking out Facebook so I chatted with them about social networks, specifically on what they used them for.
What are we really doing in Facebook?
Interestingly, instead of trying to spend time creating a more impressive profile than their peers, they seemed to be more interested in looking (or spying) at what their friends are doing. To top that off, I also saw how one of them went as far as dropping their real-life persona in favor of a pseudonym on Facebook. While this isn’t news to most of us, it does make me wonder if some better design could be incorporated in such social networks to accommodate this behavior.
Putting the “Social” in Social Networks
Facebook does so with the mini-newsfeed of your friends (see Fearmongering Facebook’s News Feed…), LiveJournal started the friends blog aggregation some time ago, while Vox did so quite well and improved on the idea with their QotD: Question of the Day feature which bring all kinds of Vox users together, thus truly mixing and socializing them. In essence, we need services that facilitate being in touch with friend according, or even to the extent of recommending other (e.g. Last.fm recommends music and “neighboring” friends!).
The Economics of Lurking
It’s incredible how much time people spend everyday in social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Perhaps most of us enjoy sharing ourselves with others, while some of us are simply wary of it and prefer to lurk. Lurking isn’t “free” in most of these networks, requiring you to invest your time in joining in, creating a profile and adding friends. Before you know it, the trade-off happens… you watch others, just as others can watch you. Truth is reinforced when your identity online is verified by friends who leave testimonials or write on your wall. It’s a pretty fair game.
Your time in Facebook = Free Labor
For me, I’d rather do share under my own space such as my blog where I have more control and ownership over my identity and content. Personally, I use social networks just to maintain presence with my friends, where they can search for me and feel comfort in knowing that I’m show up in their search results. For instance, I believe that I’m a great friend simply because show up when I’m needed, be it in real life (offline) or online. I don’t really spend too much time in these networks because I have this feeling that my effort is really benefitting someone else… in this case Facebook. While the cost benefit makes it worthwhile for most people to spend a lot of time “working for” these commercial spaces, other like me who are able to create our own online space might be inclined to do so in our own terms (e.g. our own blogs).
Trebor’s “Participation on the Social Web”
So, are we really giving away free labor to these social networks? Incidentally, researchers are asking the same question. Artist and media theorist, Trebor Scholz, is really (really) curious about participatory behavior online. His interest has led him to begin writing a book which critically addresses the ethics of the sociable web. You can find out more about his work online, but more importantly, he’s inviting everyone to participate in a relatively short survey to help with his book.
Still unhappy with our current social networks?
Friendster and MySpace are really messy (though nicely hackable) to me, and Facebook has lost the exclusive vibe that it once had for the academic crowd, since it opened its doors to everyone. In fact, Robert Scoble thinks so too, but his reason is that all the social networks simple takes up too much time. He noted also how Facebook has turned into a modern day rolodex for finding business contacts, and I’ve seem to have read somewhere that some have also made business deals via Facebook. Joi Ito noted the same affordance years ago when he likened World of Warcraft to the new golf. Thing is, if Facebook is where companies are going, how did LinkedIn get left out?
Make it Niche, Make it Damn Easy
That’s where I thought “niche social networks” should enter and hold value by being really quick to use (functional), while being extremely relevant and fiercely exclusive (e.g. offering services specific to the relevant crowd). As fragmented it would turn the social networking scene, it would serve as the long tail, catering to the smaller but passionate group of users. For instance, Estee of blogbuzz.tv recently pinged me about a social networking site for professional women cleverly called Damsels in Success. While I only took a superficial look at it, I was more intrigued by how social networking sites like these weren’t about having huge populations of users (quantitative), but rather solid relevance to specific mobs of interests (qualitative).
Heard of Neocha (it’s actually a vulgar wordplay)?
When my ETC colleagues happened to talk about how ugly MySpace was, I then pointed out Virb, a MySpace clone for designers. ETC student assistant and media artist, BingXia (as seen in video above), chimed in with Neocha, which was China’s own MySpace for creative people as well. She complains that it isn’t popular, since there’s less people on it than MySpace. I beg to differ… the value lies in how you aren’t in a huge community of strangers, but of close friends you can actually do stuff with.
Update: The Big Switch has more thoughts on China’s Online Creative Community…