Ideas for Differentiating a Social Networking Application
April 4, 2006 12:19 PM   Subscribe

So, the Achilles' heel of Social Networking is the 'What Now' Issue. Once you've listed all your friends publicly, which doesn't solve any problems you had in the first place, you're pretty much left hanging. Ideas about getting around this problem in building a social networking app?

I'm in the 'scribbling in journal' stage, so any type of input is welcome: links to articles or essays, pointers to blogs that keep an eye on these things, and any suggestions, theories or other musings on your part about what sort of social networking app you'd actually use.

Current observations:

I think Facebook does very well on the 'defining the social network' issue, down to the nitty gritties of how you know whom. On the other hand, there's really no reason to keep logging into Facebook unless your friends are using the messaging features.

MySpace user behaviour seems to suggest that perpetual next steps are: * Find more hot people to add to your friends list, * Use the internal messaging feature as a replacement for email, * Use the 'Comments' thing to keep in touch with short notes (eg. 'Nice profile pic!')

Current differentiating ideas: Open Source (eg. drop it into your club or association's site and voila, membership and event management), Not an Island (recognizes that it's not the only social software site you're going to join, so uses others' APIs and feeds, perhaps federates your identity to an extent), Solve Real Problems ([your idea here]—anything I come up with in this section veers towards PIM features and I have no intention of using my spare time trying to compete with Outlook, Google etc. in that field.)
posted by Firas to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating question.

The utility of the social network is in its actual membership. It is merely there to facilitate preexisting networking. For example, linkedin is an acme for business networking; the 'next step' is to recruit or seek work. ASmallWorld was posited as an acme for 'elite' networking. The 'next step' is to trade tickets, tips, and gossip. The emergent networking coming from social networking software is often very cool but tends only to happen after the pre-existing tendency to network among an existing constituency is moved to the site.

To get around the next step problem, find a userbase that networks and make software to make their networking easier. Maybe the folks that use Skype for business and tech chat and calls could use a social networking site as an addendum to SkypeMe.
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:26 PM on April 4, 2006

Response by poster: By The Grade of God: yeah, the task I actually have at hand is to build an Alumni Networking type of site (so that's the preexisting community), but figured I could generalize the project.
posted by Firas at 12:34 PM on April 4, 2006

I agree with BTGoG. The social networking features are infrastructure to support and ease some larger goal. Personally, I think Flickr's greatest success is as a social networking site for photographers. Photographers and photo-galleries already existed on the web - flickr just added the tools: contact systems, groups, comments, faves etc to bind people together into a shared space.

There are analogies here with offline spaces. Parties with random people never work as well as when the attendees have some common cause. But more than that, there must be something that each participant thinks they can get out of it: discussion, jobs, dates, reliable tips on travel, feedback on their work...whatever. And then you enable that.

With all due respect to ericb, I'd focus your research on looking at existing sites that work and understanding why they work. All the "academic" stuff in this area is just a wankfest (for example, the first article he links was written by Orkut. Orkut's site is generally seen as a fiasco though, to nobodys anticipation, it works for Brazilians; also, many of the people cited in the third article have changed their views since)
posted by vacapinta at 1:00 PM on April 4, 2006

Combine the discussion aspects of Mefi/AskMe/Mecha with social networking.

Imagine if we did the reverse on this site...!
posted by black8 at 1:06 PM on April 4, 2006

ObExperience: Not a myspace or facebook member.

The most promising ideas I've seen recently is two-fold:
* Promoting self-organization
* Open API

Consider Flickr - (self-organization) users are encouraged to form freewheeling groups however they'd like. You can create a group about pretty much anything and the group immediately contains a messageboard and photo pool. Anyone can join and leave at will. Groups spring up around events (The London Tube bombings come to mind), geographical locations, intangible ideas, etc. Essentially, there's not really all that much new content - it's just reassembled in a different way. All groups provide RSS feeds, allowing users to choose how they'd like to experience it.

OpenAPI: Self explanatory - the idea that you either don't have the time to code every Good Idea out there or the admission that your users will create new things in ways that you'd never think of.
posted by unixrat at 1:06 PM on April 4, 2006

This post on the excellent user experience centric blog Creating Passionate Users has a nice POV on MySpace with a link to a longer, academic article.
posted by gsh at 1:08 PM on April 4, 2006

...there's really no reason to keep logging into Facebook unless your friends are using the messaging features.

I'd disagree with that.

Facebook has messaging, a 'school bulletin board' (ie, advertising), parties complete with RSVPing and guest lists, and, most significantly (I think), free unlimited photo uploads. It works as a phone book, a photo service, a Pennysaver, a message client, and a Flickr account rolled into one.

Of course, that's not even mentioning the excitement people seem to get from just browsing their friends' profiles repeatedly to seeing when their favorite bands change or whatever. I suppose that's what the question is trying to address. (Incidentally, the Pulse feature tracks those things across the entire system, so you can see the bigger trends.) Still, I think that all the successful social networks have other features besides just the profile-browsing to keep people coming back.
posted by danb at 2:00 PM on April 4, 2006

I would have to say that Facebook, for me, is still the best one out there. I like the clean simplicity of its layout and the options to get email alerts for almost everything (except messages, but maybe one day). It's the email alerts that keep me coming back to the site..."oh, someone's written something on my wall? I'd better go check that out!"..."Oh, someone's posted a new photo with me in it? I wonder what it is!"

Browing profiles is highly addicting, and now you can search for matching information with your profile, which is cool. I would say the biggest thing was adding in photos with a keyword capacity that links back to users. It's really fun to browse all the photos of one single person. If this is for alumni of a group, I'm sure it woudl be quite fun if people started dusting off old albums and posting scanned pictures with the names of the people inside linked back to them. Then people can post descriptions of the photos and add comments, etc.

I actually hate the fact that I have to check my messages separately, so it would be cool if you could have a least an email notification that you've received a new message. But the big thing for me was photos.
posted by riverjack at 4:32 PM on April 4, 2006

Social Software Weblog
Many-to-Many - some authors have their own blogs as well:
- Danah Boyd
- Ross Mayfield

"Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?" - excellent essay written by Danah Boyd that touches on a lot of great points about what made certain social networks succeed or fail. A lot of great material to digest.
posted by junesix at 8:11 PM on April 4, 2006

Have a purpose.

Social networking is a set of features that add value to other things you do online like communicating, shopping, researching, entertaining yourself. The set of features alone does nothing for you, but combined with something like Flickr, where the PRIMARY focus is DOING SOMETHING, the features are more powerful.

On Friendster, the "purpose" behind the social networking features is simply making money for the site founders.
posted by scarabic at 9:00 PM on April 4, 2006

Response by poster: Indeed; I too believe that 'social networking is a feature, not an application'. The only reason I'm exploring this area—even though my first response to someone considering making a social networking app would be "don't"—is that the actual problem on my hands (making a directory of people, their locations, etc.) is solved literally by a social networking app, right?

Some thoughts that occured to me while doing interface sketching last night:
  • Writing something redistributable leaves you with a 'shallow pool' problem, where every site that installs your app as an extension to their community doesn't have enough users to make the social networking area a worthwhile experience on its own. Plus you're left with the lock-in problem anyway; you can move yourself from to, but you can't move all your friends… this is where federated identity across the instances of the app can be a really cool innovation.
  • Getting 'context-sensitive revelation of information' right (what's revealed to your parents vs. what's revealed to your friends vs. what's revealed to your ex-one-night-stand) is a difficult issue. You can route around it with technology by putting people's contacts in groups and having group permissions on photos, etc., but I'd like to avoid complexity of that sort. (Another reason this is difficult is that the 'type of information exposed to person x' is not directly proportional to 'how familiar you are with person x'; often you reveal a sort of identity to 'everyone' except certain groups—eg., you'll mention an intimate thought or post a risque picture as long as the reader/viewer is a random student on your campus instead of your boss.) Possible resolution: audiences split by 'destination' anyway, so it's not something to worry about much. Eg., if you're on MySpace, you don't add your neighbour's Mom as a friend, and your neighbour's Mom doesn't hang on MySpace, so you've basically managed to exclude her as an audience without MySpace's developers technologically barring her access.
  • Picking up on the 'destination' thing, trying to "generalize the project" is a bit ridiculous because the type of audience/activity you're building for informs the rest of your feature choices. I think I'll just focus on making a good alumni-management app; if it's successful I can worry about generalizing the backend code later.
PS. One more point that came to me is that there are so many incredible revenue opportunities in these things via tie-ins with local or web-based merchants—is trying to make a living off ads as many social networking apps do basically throwing away money? Despite the stereotype of the broke college kid, 18-25 year olds spend, they spend ungodly sums on the most frivolous things (eg. ringtones…). It's not Web 2.0 until big sites try harebrained schemes like: get people's credit card numbers and give them 'points' in return, then let them use those points to buy from affiliated stores, and take a referral cut from said stores.
posted by Firas at 11:09 AM on April 5, 2006

« Older "God Doesn't Exist" on TV   |   Software to "Make it so" Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.