Social Networking: Everyone wants a piece of the action. Users want to be where the cool people are and feel part of a community. Businesses want to make money off of it.
The 44 billion dollar question is: How?
I don't know the answer.
Last month, I attended the "Online Community Un-conference: East" open-space event in NYC. I heard about that event via Scott Watermasysk, so I figured I'd stop by and see what it was all about. There were folks there from various start-ups, retailers, and other Internet sites. Most there were focusing on how they could use social networking to create or enhance their businesses. I saw lots of great ideas there. Examples included:
- Change The Present - Find the charities your friend is interested in and give a gift to them instead of a present.
- Crowdsourcing - Community around producing content
- Kick Apps - Outsourced social networking produced for your retail site
- TJ Maxx - Ability to share what's hot in the store + provide reviews
- Many other retail examples where users of a particular product or company can network with other users.
All of these sounded really great. I would love to be able to participate in or use many of these services. But there was one huge problem with almost all of them: How do I move my identity into and out of them? No one I asked seemed to have the answer to that problem. Each of these social networking services requires me to invest time establishing my identity with them by creating an account and then associating personal data with that account. I see THAT as more of a problem than anything else. Without that problem solved, I'm highly unlikely to use any of them!
This problem is nothing new when it comes to social networking. It goes beyond just social networking on various web sites, all the way back to the old days of when social networking was a desktop-only phenomenon.
I recently had the opportunity to evaluate the state of my participation in social networking. Friday, February 22nd was paving day. I spent the day re-paving my Dell laptop which was loaded with tons of beta software and other crap that had slowed it to a crawl. With a couple of slow days before a crazy month of events would begin, I figured it was as good a time as any to get it done.
With any machine re-paving, you have to re-install all the applications you'll use on that box. After going through all of that, I took a look at my desktop and thought: "Ah! So this is what 24 inch wide screen monitors are for!"
This is madness! My desktop looks virtually the same today as it did in 1999. Well... okay, there have been a few new versions of the applications you see in that screen shot, as well as some new additions. But essentially, when it comes to instant messaging, there are still a bunch of different IM networks that don't integrate well with each other. (Okay... there are few exceptions there - Yahoo/Live, GTalk/Jabber.)
Why do I belong to all of them? Because I have friends on some, but not on others, and vice versa. I have to stay where my peeps are as they aren't going to follow me. (And why should they?!)
I know I could use something like Trillian to reduce the IM application footprint on my desktop, but then I don't get the richness each network has to offer. Yahoo has the snazzy WPF client. Live has all the shared folder stuff I use frequently and AIM... well... okay, I could do with out the AIM client. :) Plus, with Trillian, it's really just an aggregation of the different networks. I still need to maintain my separate identity on each one.
Office Communicator is a bit cooler in that you can use one identity across multiple networks. But even Communicator has its issues. While you can maintain a single identity across all three networks (AIM, Live, & Yahoo), that identity is your work account. Plus, this works only if your IT department lets you! Of course, like Trillian, there is still the issue of lack of access to each network's "special features".
So what ends up happening? I usually log into only one or two networks at a time as I don't want my machine to come to a crawl running IM clients. Then, I end up falling out of touch with the folks on the networks I don't sign into all the time. It's frustrating.
Note to my old AIM Buddies: Hello again to all of you I haven't spoken to in a while!
But back to the web... I remember when I was in college (mid 90s), IM was the new thing all the cool kids were using. Email was so old fashioned. The folks more senior than I really didn't catch on to IM right away. When I look at the modern social networks like MySpace and Facebook, I'm the same way. I've missed the boat on those. I just don't get them. But everyone younger than me does.
Okay... I take that back. I DO get them. It's just that my desire to use them hasn't been there. Why? Probably the same reason that I'm still frustrated over multiple IM networks that don't mesh.
I've seen lots of MySpace pages that are all tricked out. Their owners probably put a lot of time and effort into them. They also spent time establishing their friends on MySpace, etc. But that's a lot of work. Do I really want to go through that over and over again on each network? Live Spaces, Plaxo, LinkedIN, Facebook, Orkut, Twitter, and the list goes on and on. Even if I did take the time to join all of them... then just like the IM thing, I'd have to remember to log into each one to see what's going on and update my information to keep everyone else up to date.
Now if you start adding all these other "single purpose" social networking sites (the retail stores, etc) the problem multiplies exponentially! Do I really want to be bothered with setting up a presence at the sites of my favorite retailers? I'd be on social network overload. I just don't see it flying.
Note to MySpace users: Can we please STOP with the music that plays automatically when the page loads?! I know you really like that funky 80s song, but it's REALLY annoying to have to hear Color Me Bad's "I Wanna Sex You Up" each time I come by to see what you're up to!
Besides the disjointed networks, there's also the related identity issue of personas. We've seen a lot of stories in the media lately about how what happens online doesn't stay online. Unlike Vegas, on the Internet, everything follows you everywhere. Just locally here at the Jersey Shore there were two stories you might remember: Look at Point Pleasant's own Antonella Barba photo scandal from American Idol, and Howell's Miss NJ blackmail incident.
Both of these resulted when photos appropriate in one context were shared widely in a context that was not appropriate. (Yes, I do think there may be appropriate contexts to be photo'ed in a water fountain in a bikini.) Seriously though... in my current job, I have a public facing role (as evidenced by this blog).
That's a professional persona I need to maintain online for my job. I try to keep things clean and professional. But, just like everyone else, I have a life outside of work. I like to keep it somewhat separated. I have friends. I party with them. And I just might have half-naked photos of myself partying with them too.
I'd like to be able to share those memories with my friends in the appropriate context online. But I can't. The risks would be too high to my professional presence. It's not like I can have a Live Space under one Hotmail account with drunken photos, and another with my latest .NET presentations and keep those separated. With Yahoo, Live, and Google around, folks would quickly discover both.
Note: I used to have a web site that displayed all of my drunken party pictures from college right on through to recent times. But I took it down for exactly the concerns I mentioned above. Luckily, it appears I was able to keep them out of Google's memory! 🙂
So, that's another reason why social networks aren't what they could be today. We need to be able to have different personas, and do it in a manner that is reasonably secure and respects the privacy of those personas.
Yes, I realize some would argue that if Peter is allowed to maintain his secret drunk partying site separately from his professional site, he could also maintain his secret name-calling site, or secret hate speech site, etc. (<-- I don't have ANY of those! I swear!) Some social networking sites provide this risk as a reason why they don't allow personas. But I guess that's a risk we all face. Those types of sites are already out there now. I don't see enabling personas opening the likelihood of that getting greater.
On the other hand, personas would enable folks to anonymously belong to other groups they might be sensitive in sharing publicly (alcoholics anonymous, health issue groups, political discussion groups, etc, etc) That would be a GREAT thing to enable!
Whether it be disjointed networks or the lack of personas, the issues with social networking all come down to a single problem: It's all about the identity, stupid! I want to be able to control it and be able to move my data between networks as seamlessly and as friction free as possible. It's 2008 and it doesn't look like we'll see an answer anytime soon.
Today, there is little motivation for one social network to share its data with the others. The money is all in owning/controlling the identity data. (At least that's the way the owners of these social networks see it.) It's going to take a serious shift in business model to change the incentives here.
There have been a few attempts at solving this problem from a technical perspective: Open ID, Windows CardSpace, and the DataPortability.org thing come to mind. But none of these have panned out so far.
Recently, most of the big players (Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, etc) have announced they will provide Open IDs. That's great! But what good is an Open ID if no one accepts them?! None of the major social networks accepts Open IDs today. Even if Open IDs were accepted by the social networks, having an Open ID doesn't fix everything. The Open ID just identifies WHO I am. It doesn't give me an easy & friction free way to move my data into and out of these services.
Windows CardSpace, and the generic cross-platform InfoCards it supports, appears to provide a user friendly way to make that problem easier... especially if connected to an Open ID. With CardSpace, a user can store all of their data within an InfoCard that they own. They can then share the data (as much or little as they choose) in the InfoCard with web sites by selecting the card in a consistent UI metaphor.
But, a decision to enable InfoCards as a way for moving data in and out of social networking services depends on those services agreeing to it. That's where DataPortability.org comes into play. According to its mission statement, DataPortability.org is working to "put existing data portability technologies, techniques, policies and initiatives in context in order to facilitate translation, education, advocacy and ultimately implementation."
In other words, the group is looking to advocate the technologies needed to enable data portability, as well as the policies required to make it happen. It's exciting to think of what will be possible if more companies sign on to DataPortability.org. But, no one knows if that will work.
There is still hope for each of these in the future, but I live in the now.
Until then, I guess I'll just stay stuck partying like it's 1999! Oh yeah, and here's a partying Peter photo from 1999 to go along with it.