Believe it or not, the top 20 social networking sites account for 6.5 percent of all Internet traffic in February 2007. Despite this apparent wisdom of the crowd, my blog buddies know how I have a problem with Facebook. In fact, while I maintain presence on a number of social networking sites (SNSes), such as friendster, myspace, and orkut, I’ve a common problem to them all: They are explicitly boring.
Let me explain this further…
Sure, having a collection of your friends profiles might give you peace of mind, but after you collect a whole bunch, you’re kinda back to square one (it’s iterative isn’t it?). Furthermore, after using all these social networks for a while, you’ll start to realize that these sites have you doing the same routine day after day. You get friend invites, event invites, group invite (that’s what mailing lists are for) and basically all kinds of stuff that needs your approval (not unlike an office manager). Your notifications might look something like what I get daily on Facebook (see right), but it’s probably not as bad as what Paul Stamatiou gets! It’s not exactly spam… but it’s bacn alright.
Have you forgotten the walled gardens?
Getting these notifications is much like getting emails, except that these networks place you in a pretty walled garden (it’s AOL all over again). The labor you commit in these social networking sites ends up being entrapped on the site, instead of being openly accessible as part of the present day Web 2.0 ideology. Eventually, you end up distributing your precious time over more channels (e.g. blog, email, IM, etc), making your online life more difficult than it already is.
But I like finding friends in there…
It’s true, especially with really popular social networks like Facebook, you can find almost anyone. Blogeratis like Robert Scoble have referred to Facebook as being the modern day Rolodex, while others like Stamatiou have seen its benefits in personal emergencies. Well, here’s a tip: Find them and have them talk to you via email, IM or better still, have them give you their RSS feeds. Oh, if you don’t already know, I’ll have to show you how to make a simple (non-spammy) Twitter lifestream over the weekend.
But Facebook has neat little apps…
Ah-ha! It’s sneaky, but what these Facebook apps do in the context of an explicit networking site is to give you micro-platforms of interactions within a larger ecology of relationships. While they do create points of interests (some are fun after all), you’ll find yourself spending more time tending to the micro-interactions, which adds up to being a good amount of labor, with almost zero utilitarian value (except as a long tail of entertainment?). All in all, the more time you spend in the walled garden, the less time you’re spending outside contributing on the real web (and more ad revenue for the networking site).
What is Facebook (and most SNSes) good for then?
Ask yourself, what do you want out of Facebook (or any SNS)? Realize that these social networks facilitate the maintenance of weak ties, which are useful for instance in finding jobs or cold (luke-warm) calling for business deals. If it comes to keeping real friends, keep it in the meat space (i.e. get some face-to-face action going). Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Liverpool, have been conducting surveys of social networking denizens and found that despite people claiming 150 or 200 online friends, most only have five core friends. As Josh Fischman from The Chronicle of Higher Education astutely pointed out, this was especially ironic yet solid since that was the same number of friends most people have offline too (refer to Telegraph.co.uk and InformationWeek articles). Ultimately, while the definition of a “close friend” is subjective, this tells us that there’s a relative threshold on the number of friends we can keep. While we might have a few close friends (strong ties), rather than have the rest (acquaintances) relegated as weak ties, I could see more granularity in between. People that maintain these well might include life insurance agents who meet you fairly often to become decent friends (moderate ties).
What’s a better way to keep in touch then?
Seriously, why go with a plain vanilla social networking service? I prefer services that treat the social network as a subconscious emergent ecology, lying transparent and in the background, where the focus would be on a service with a primary utility. Here’s what I mean:
Rather than have a whole bunch of online friends force down an activity on one another (e.g. Facebook apps / games), it makes more sense to have a particular purpose dictate the friends you come in contact with. It’s like me playing a game of basketball and you’d be able to join me if you happen to play as well, rather than me blindly broadcasting to everyone if they’d like to play, which is less efficient relationship-wise. Thus, social networks should focus on activity -> individuals, rather than individuals -> activity. It’s a more natural process, where the authenticity lies in discovering a mutual shared interest, less of a personal agenda. As in Flickr, Last.fm, LinkedIn, Shelfari and 43 Things, these are just some of the niche social networking sites that offer you something you’d want to use constantly, and to let particular activities dictate the people you come in contact with. That makes much more sense to me.
Aside 1: I’m not an elite social networker, so the recent Facebook issues raised by Danah Boyd and Robert Scoble wouldn’t apply to me. I’m hoping my case makes sense to the rest of you.
Aside 2: Why are certain social networking sites (SNS) popular with certain cultures? Here’s the journal article I found which includes a survey of color use to explain why different nationalities gravitate to certain web portals. Check out “Cross-cultural dimensions of Internet portals” by S Zahir, B Dobing, MG Hunter (2002).