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 OurChart.com, which is an improbable spin-off of the Showtime Network’s series “The L Word.” Before these, even, there was Musicmobs.com for devotees of popular music, Ning.com, 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.