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Picnic08 – The future of social networks

Linda Stone, the queen of all social networks, wants to challenge the idea of “friending”. This, she argues, is the most absurd behavior we engage in online. Confronting her panelists – Jyri Engeström, Matt Jones, Addy Feuerstein and Philip Rosedale – one by one, she asks if they’re her friend. The point – our real social interactions are far more granular and nuanced than online tools currently allow them to be. This is the problem most of her panelists are striving to solve, either by building new, better tools, or by challenging how we think about social media.

Engeström works on social media products for Google, and while he doesn’t preview the Android for us – despite some strong pressure from Linda – but does offer a useful model for what works in social media. People don’t connect randomly in real life – they connect around objects of shared interest. This interest can be anything – he shows a slide of Italians connecting in a farm field around their shared interest in unusual breeds of potatoes. In social networks, we usually connect around bookmarks, photos, status messages, locations or travel. When considering a social network, you should ask the question, “What’s the social object within this service? If you can’t answer that question, the service is in trouble.”

Social networks are leveraging the ability to create new meda. Photo sharing took off when we got good cameraphones. Video, with services like Seesmic, may be the next thing. But we can’t just think about the object – we should think about verbs as well. Go to Ebay, and the verbs you encounter are “buy” and “sell”. What actions does a network want you to engage in? And what are the points where it triggers you to engage? Good networks have thought through these questions carefully and designed tools that have clear objects, verbs and triggers.

One of the tools lots of people are celebrating here is Dopplr, an excellent social network for frequent travelers. (Like me.) Matt Jones, one of the founders, describes the site as a small part of the coral reef of the web, serving a very narrow niche with a small piece of info – information on where you and your friends are in the world on any given day. Jones thinks we should let go of the idea of friendship in many social tools and just focus on the exchange of information. He quotes Merlin Mann, who describes the new feature on FriendFeed which allows you to pretend to follow a friend so you won’t create an awkward social situation, “This is a major breakthrough in the make-believe friendship space.” There are many rich ways we can build social relationships online, but we’d do better to focus on the information we already exchange, the “wear we leave on social objects”, rather than forcing make-believe friendship.

Addi Feuerstein is a true believer in media sharing and social media. His project, AllOfMe, allows you to merge your posting to various web2.0 sites into a single lifestream, then edit contributions down into a timeline. This functions as something of a scrapbook – you can show your children what flickr photos you and your spouse published during your courtship by promoting those to a personal timeline. There are interesting video-based interfaces to present the results. I don’t think I’m in need of an aggregator of my social network presences, but this certainly looks like a good one. Linda suggests that this might be a tool for narcisists, but also for anyone keeping scrapbooks or memories…

Philip Rosedale explains how the Burning Man festival influenced his thinking about the virtual world Second Life. He went to his first Burning Man as he was beginning to design the tool, and decided, “Whatever second life is going to become, it’s going to look like Burning Man.

Rosedale believes that there are three characteristics special to Burning Man, “three unlikely, mysterious ingredients”. It’s “purposeless” – you build things, but there’s no overarching goal to building. You are in symmetric relationships with the other participants – you’re all here to entertain one another. And you’re all aware that there’s an element of risk – if you’re dumb, the desert can kill you.

These functions, he tells us, are replicated in Second Life. There’s adversity – the interface is difficult, there’s a learning curve in building. The system is symmetric – you’re all amusing one another. And it’s purposeless, in terms of an overall goal.

Second Life is one manifestation of technology in a world where the only thing scarce is your attention. Creativity is a scarce resource, and it’s probably evenly distributed around the world. As we get better at producing things, not just bits, we’ll all wear designer jeans designed by different single individuals. We’ll want everything to be creative and custom. And this spread of creativity will spread wealth in a Tom Friedman-esque fashion, flattening the world.

It would be interesting to try to synthesize Rosedale and Engeström theories. What are the objects and verbs in Second Life? Is it possible for creativity and purposelessness to be the object or the verb in a successful social network?

3 thoughts on “Picnic08 – The future of social networks”

  1. Sounds as if social media in danger of entering the communications equivalent of the world of hedge fund derivatives (or just small dark rooms).

  2. Pingback: Social Networks Aren’t Social

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