Merging Social Networks

Social Software is the in thing these days. Among the sites mapping the social networks of Internet are Friendster, and LinkedIn. Following their success we have less known services such as Ryze, Everyone’s Connected, MeetUp and tons of others. It even seems they are running out of catchy domains with names like itsnotwhatyouknow popping up!

As for myself I’ve watched the development for a long time as I joined in 1997 or 1998. It was a different service then than it is now. Actually sixdegrees original patent is still a piece of the action in the race for the throne of the social software world.

Today I’m registered at several of those, but I only maintain my profile on one of them: LinkedIn. It’s simply too much trouble to maintain more than one and LinkedIn has served me fine in so far. But the whole point of this all is kind of lost with all these separate networks. Could there be a way to make these different networks interoperable, so I would only have to maintain one profile?

Now the immediate reaction is probably “No way! Each service is targeted at its own niche group and the boring business types on LinkedIn don’t want to talk to the sex-o-maniacs at Friendster” – to exaggerate the rough demographics of each one.

Sure enough, this is one of the challenges, but I suspect that many of the entertainment seeking Friendsters are actually the very same respectful businessmen with an adjusted profile (and maybe an adjusted name to go with it).

Throughout the whole history of the Internet, being “someone else” has been a big part of “who you are” online. This was true for chatting on IRC, discussions on Usenet and email. People often forget that faking or hiding the real identity is sometimes a good thing. In many circumstances it’s good to be able to communicate anonymously with people, at least up until a certain level of trust is reached, then one can gradually let people closer to who you really are. This element should not be overlooked in the world of social software.

Now if the social software makers continue on their separate paths, most of them will die pretty soon and none of them will manage to deliver the full promise of mapping the online social networks.

What is needed is a standard for interoperation and at the same time an understanding for the different needs and purposes of the users.

Here are just a few tips to the social software makers when they define their standards:

  • A user must be able to define multiple profiles. Managing them all in one place will still simplify things a lot, as much of the different profiles is actually deciding how much information one wants to reveal to each trust-level ranging from “total strangers” to “me, myself and Irene”.
  • A connection is not just a connection. You want to assign different levels of trust to different people depending on how well you know them and how well you trust them (which is NOT the same thing).
  • While at it, please make it your job to centrally manage contact info, so we don’t need a separate service for that (allow Plaxo to join your ranks).
  • Now integrate the whole thing with Outlook and MSN Messenger and we’ll all be one big happy online family.

An integration of this sort is at least what many of us users would like to see, but the challenge is to convince the big players in the market to buy in on this strategy. They are likely to see this as a threat rather than an opportunity.

The way for each player to keep their edge, would be to continue to target their user interfaces and the highlighted items to their current target groups. When at work the business people don’t want to be presented with the latest on their favorite R&B star – and while seeking a date the same person might not want to see ads on the latest in online backup solutions.

I guess there would be room for about three players in this integrated world, roughly segmented in a similar way as Friendster (youth and entertainment), LinkedIn (business and IT) and (somewhere in-between covering a broad range of sometimes niche subjects).

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All this said, I wonder where Microsoft is with their social software strategy? Who’s going to be the Hotmail of social software when they buy in?

Social Software Alliance – Aimed at bringing interoperability to the world of social software.
Are You Ready for Social Software – Excellent article from Darwin Magazine
Techdirt: It’s All About Who You Know – Social networks are not necessarily a good thing.
More concerns: Esther Dyson, Kevin Werbach

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