Network Once, Socialize Anywhere

This just in: social networks are awesome. But.

If it isn’t here already, we are, in all likelihood, counting down to the end of the first phase of social networking, that stage in the Internet’s maturation that will be remembered for its behemoth social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, etc. Thirteen days from today, the end of the year, would be as good a time as any to mark the official closing of the era.

These networks will continue to thrive, no doubt, and continue to be influential. But it seems to me that next year what we’ll see is the emergence of the post-social Internet, in which the tools of social networking take on the qualities of ubiquitous givens, and in which the previous style of expansive, cross-demographic digital hubs like those mentioned above are going to be joined by a score of smaller, more focused niche networks catering to narrower tastes.

A Thousand Points of Socializing

These are already here. Two of them made The New York Times today: Charles Saatchi’s art playground at Stuart, and a new startup called, which is an improbable spin-off of the Showtime Network’s series “The L Word.” Before these, even, there was for devotees of popular music,, whose primary purpose is in fact to allow users to create brand new social networks of their own, and the groaningly named MyBlogLog, which allows you to attach a buddy list to just about any Web page. Alert readers will doubtless be able to name a dozen more.

The question I’ve always asked is: how many of these networks can a single user remain faithful to? In this coming world where everything will include some form of social networking, I have to scratch my head and wonder if I’ll be able to remain current on anything more than two or three of them. Who has the time for more, if even that many? (Though part of the new ubiquity, I’m guessing, will be the idea that social networking tools will in many ways become more transparent, there will still need to be some maintenance required for most.)

If You Network Someone, Set them Free

This fretting about the overhead of social networks seems especially important if, as some suggest, the path to success for these networks will be exclusivity, the idea that “these networks are only as strong as their members” and that the gatekeepers would do well to “keep the riff-faff out.” It seems like a small leap though from strategically exclusive to enduringly proprietary; if you’re looking to keep unwanted users out, it follows that you’ll also want to lock ‘good’ users in.

Which just fills me with greater discouragement about the prospects for a decentralized social networking framework that can ensure a moderate level of inter-operability. I call the idea, “Network Once, Socialize Anywhere.” Why should I have to connect to my best friend, say, once on Flickr, once on LinkedIn, once on Twitter and again for as many new cool networks as will arise in 2007?

It’s true that the prospects for such a standardized way of collecting and maintaining social network data seem dim. As an imperative in a marketplace that’s emphasizing the acquisition of huge audiences above all else, it would seem to have low priority, and these things tend to gravitate towards de facto standards defined by the big players, anyway.

Speaking only for myself, though: what I want out of the Web, as in most things, is simplicity. And the current mode of continually reflecting my personal information and buddy lists across multiple networks ad infinitum seems sadly complex, frustrating even. Here, at the onset of the new year, I have to take a slightly broader view and ask myself, how many more social networks will I join in 2007 alone? At least a dozen, I imagine, and unless something changes, each time it’ll be like starting over from scratch.

  1. I’m not sure that a clearinghouse that holds your personal information would work, but maybe a social networking version of vCard might work. You save all the relevant data (birthday, website, favorite whatever) in a vCard file and upload it when you choose your username and password.

    Since the card is just a file, you could place it on your server (or some public space) and have all the social networks ping your card for updates. Surely, sites will pop up to let you edit this data, but these sites aren’t required for the format to be successful.

    Funny you brought this up today as it was on my mind as well.

  2. I don’t think Open ID will necessarily solve the problem that Khoi’s suggesting.

    Even with a universal login to all of these sites, its the fact that there are so many communities to join these days, its hard for someone to want to come back any one of them. UNLESS that site provides niche content for that user that really sticks in their head.

    I do think Khoi is right about social networking for the general mass audience is pretty much a done game. But is it over? I don’t know about that. Search was considered “over” at one point then Google came along and changed that.

  3. OpenID is *part* of the answer.

    What if one of the service features of an IdP was hosting your profile and buddylists.

    Or if you choose to host your OpenID on your own site and delegate authentication to a IdP, you could setup a profile / buddylist page on your on site.

    A microformat possibly named “hProfile” could use hCard and XFN plus new supplemental data that incorporates buddylists, affinities, avatar etc.

    Combine permanent portable identity (OpenID) and a profile format (? hProfile ?).

    A truly open social network could even come along an initiate all this by acting as an IdP, serving users OpenID with the added feature of the profile.

    There is obviously a market, what with all the chatter about this recently.

  4. I for one have at length failed to grasp the utility of social networking sites as I have yet to find one that has actually become a part of my offline life. Am I in the minority? Moreover, isn’t attractive content (i.e. still the most compelling way to interact with others with similar interests? Heck, I even bought the hel-f-vetica t-shirt. Flickr is great for online photo management, but my contacts list and profile are mere shams of the ones I painstakingly edited in the early days of friendster. Remember friendster?

    “Network Once, Socialize Anywhere” is a most utilitarian idea. I can’t shake the notion, however, that but for social science experiments and advertising (which are almost the same thing sometimes), there is hardly as much usefulness in the buddy list for the consumer as there is for the aggregator.

    When someone finally comes up with a former fans of Digital Underground website, however, I’ll probably attach a line from Underwater Rhymes to my gravatar signature thingy, and maybe even click on an adsense link for blowfish sushi.

  5. it’s theoretically possible to apply some of the lessons learned (and the methodolgies and models) from bitorrent (for example) to social networking. this could give you the ability to develop an inheritance model that could cover a huge range of “relationship” networking levels.

  6. Most of you have mentioned OpenID (which I have yet to see implemented), but I’m surprised no one has mentioned Facebook’s API.
    Perhaps it’s more of a student thing, but a whole bunch of these ‘mini’ social sites now let you log in using your facebook ID. As soon as you do so all your contact information is copied over and, if the service supports you, your friends list will be migrated over to the new site.
    As an example, I use for my notes. A bunch of friends were interested in what I was using to take notes, so I signed them into the service in about 10 seconds.

  7. If i understand the business model correctly, they’re already doing this by trying to corral all the different sites/multiple usernames into one name (or ID as you say) and generate revenue by putting your profile into Google as a PPC as well as a Pagerank.

  8. Great observation Koi; I very much agree with those made in the Frog Design article – social networking online must feed an offline social network for it to sustain any currency. For it to be genuinely tangible. Even if only one or two members of an online social network see one another physically, it makes the online social realm more genuine.

    I consider Ze Frank’s “Running Fool” to be an excellent example of this. The members of Ze’s social community are engaging in an exercise which will brings them all that little bit closer together thanks to a small number of genuine physical engagements.

    He asked the question last week about going beyond the “fourth wall”. It think this is it; Ze gets it.

  9. As Raafi commented, the introduction of a “shared profile” among all networking sites is an utilitarian idea. The problem is we have different profiles, different friends, and different networks for different purposes in our life. Sometimes it’s just inconvenient for these to overlap, sometimes people want to avoid it at all cost.

    Sometimes this problem can occur inside a single site. Two examples:

    Flickr distinguishes between family, friends and others, but these are just different overlapping parts of one network. It’s easy to envision the usefulness for someone to show pics to their friends but not their families…

    I have a MySpace profile for myself, my chillout music project, my former dance music alter ego, and my label. I have four logins to MySpace. I don’t want to mix my personal profile with the others. People who like (befriend) the dance stuff might not like the chillout music. Different networks. Extremely difficult to manage at the moment.

  10. I think claimID has a good idea. You post a public profile of where you can be found. People can then choose which niches they can associate with you best on. The people I have as my flickr friends are mainly people that like to share photography, people on myspace are close friends, linkedin for general business contacts, etc….

    I think openid is a good idea for this as well. Technorati has just implemented openid.

    My worry is signing up with all of these smaller niche sites and wasting time. While they may indeed be better then the larger ones I worry about their longevity and the contacts and profile I have spent time with will all go to waste.

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