The Future of Social Networking

N/A • 14 Aug 2008 • EDITORIAL

My experience in social networking is predominantly as a user. I have recently worked on two social networking projects but I am still a user first. I actively maintain profiles on at least three major social networks. One is for business, LinkedIn. Two are predominantly personal, Facebook and ASmallWorld. I am also often on MySpace looking up profiles but I don't have one of my own. I have looked through a number of smaller social networking sites (and signed up to a few) each with a specific focus. These days, there's a lot to choose from.

Each network has its own particular feel. Some are targeted at specific audiences while others are broad spectrum. Some are fairly basic while others have a plethora of bells and whistles. Some are aesthetic looking while others look like visual vomit. Each requires a fair amount of effort to sign up, create your profile, maintain it, and interact with others.

"Social fatigue" is what happens to many newcomers when they get too much of a good thing. Often it is the result of being on too many networks with too many connections and overactive friends. While the social fatigue factor is not to be dismissed, the amount of time many people are spending on social networking sites is extraordinary. Currently, people are using up anything from a couple of minutes to over an hour each day browsing each others' profiles, writing on walls, sharing pictures, sharing internet content, playing games, sending on-line gifts, etc.

So, where does it go from here? Some experts think the social fatigue will start to take its toll as the novelty of these services starts to wear off, and users reclaim some of the time lost from other activities. However, most (including me) think that social networks will continue to grow in scope and usage. Here is my prediction for some of the new features and changes we might see in social networking in the years to come.

Social Email

Most social networks come with an “In Box” but they're pretty basic. When you send an message using Facebook, it will then send the recipient a notification via regular email inviting them to look at it. While this has a certain evolutionary logic to it, it is far from efficient. The social networks will hopefully evolve their In Box capabilities into full fledged email services similar to Gmail and Yahoo Mail with the ability to serve as your primary e-mail account. There are numerous benefits to joining the two together. One benefit is your directory of contacts would merge with your social network. If someone changes their email address, it instantly changes in your email contact list. It also simplifies emailing photos or profile information, making introductions, and can help with reducing SPAM. I predict we will see partnerships between email providers and social networks.

Social IM

Instant messaging has already been loosely tied in with some social networks but in the not too distant future we could see them merging more thoroughly together. We already manage our status in the social network and we also do it in IM. By bringing them together, we can set our status, availability, and/or mood all in one place. Also, when we are active on our social network, we are most likely available and interested in chatting with people in our network as well. Our network of IM contacts and social contacts are often very similar. The same benefits would apply to group chats. As with email, we may very well see the first example of this being an IM provider like AOL integrating a Web 2.0 client directly into one or more of the social networks.

Social Search

Google recently unveiled an experimental search system that works via referrals. The concept is similar to the popular website Digg where users rate sites, stories, etc. by voting on them. Simply put, they give it a thumbs up if they like it. The links with the most votes percolate to the top while others appear lower down the list. In Google's experimental search system, it's a similar concept. Instead of the usual PageRank algorithm determining where a link shows up in a search, the number of thumbs up votes determines the order. The more thumbs up, the higher the listing shows up in the search.

This concept alone is interesting but the global internet community has a lot of varied tastes and interests, not everyone likes the same things. Tie this concept into your social network and it becomes powerful. Your network is much more likely to reflect your interests than the internet at large. By examining the top 100 search terms of Google, you can see (hopefully) that not everything the great unwashed masses are looking at is what you want to see. Now imagine a list of the top 100 search terms from your social network. Which would be more interesting?

The way it works is simple. As you and your network of social connections visit interesting sites, you nominate the ones you like via a toolbar. If you share it on Facebook, it gets an even stronger vote. When you do a search, the results are prioritised by the votes of your network. Votes from your immediate network would count the most but votes from people in your extended network (from one to many degrees away from you) can also count as well.

Social Recommendation

The social search concept above has more than one application. Currently, when you go to Amazon or iTunes, you are often presented with information about what other people liked. For example, on Amazon, if you select a particular book, the site will tell you of books that other people bought with it. This is basic recommendation. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

By incorporating information from both your immediate social network and the extended social network, you could get much more specific recommendations that are more likely to match your tastes. Using the Amazon example, when you select a book, it will tell you what other Amazon people bought with it but it can also tell you if anyone in your social network bought it, rated it, or bought anything else with it. In both recommendation and search, privacy is key. Social networks must make sure not to single out and expose a particular individual's private activity. Instead, they need to focus on group trends and activities. More on this later.

Social Forums

One of the predecessors to today's social networks is the standalone discussion forum. Often these are tacked onto sites with a particular interest or focus in mind. Fan sites are a common use. Others are dedicated to hobbies or products. I use several that are focused on cars to find specific information and share experiences about the cars I own. They are highly social. Users maintain profiles, avatars, and complicated signatures. Many people frequent these discussion groups several times a day to see what's new and get involved in multiple discussions.

Some social networks already include discussion groups in their group pages and fan sites but they are limited in capability, unmoderated, abused with SPAM and generally not nearly as useful. This will change. Once the social networks match the capability and ease of use of the standalone discussion forums, you can bet that many will migrate to the social network to take advantage of the common social elements that they both employ.

Once that happens, you can expect many new, smaller, highly targeted peer-based discussion forums that wouldn't otherwise exist. Group discussions across all or part of your social network will become much more common and will be a whole new form of interaction for many.

Social Advertising

While not a consumer proposition, this is an important topic for the social networks as it is likely to be their primary source of revenue. Most all social networks currently display advertising to generate income. However, the level of targeted advertising is still pretty basic. I say this not with any inside knowledge of how it's done, but rather just by the relevance of the ads I see. Social networks have the ability to mine a great deal of information to fine tune ad targeting to a high degree. Often, people show their interests, their activities, their hobbies, who they are fans of, etc. This profile information is electronic gold to the advertisers. While the social networks cannot share it with the advertisers, they can use it to match the right ad with the right profile.

Good ad targeting changes everything. The better it is, the more the advertiser will pay, the more likely the ad will be clicked on, and the more meaningful it is to the viewer. It is a win-win-win. This is a concept very close to Google's heart but they don't have a successful social network to do it with. Taking Google's model one step further, the social network can also provide ad targeting services to other internet destinations.

Social Mobility

Social networking has found its way onto mobile phones but so far it's pretty limited. You can do some of the same things you do from your laptop but this is really just the first step. It will get interesting when social networks incorporate some of the phone's capabilities together with the social network. One of the most promising capabilities is incorporating your location. Several current mobile phones have GPS capability built-in. Being able to use your location to find friends while on the move is a tantalizing prospect but needs a lot of thought for security. This would have been very useful for me at the Coachella music festival earlier this year!

Another common use would be when meeting new people. You can instantly connect or exchange an electronic greeting card via your social network. In a business environment, this could replace the stacks of cards you get at each conference. In a social environment, you can share as much or as little as you like giving your new acquaintance a lot or a little to learn about you.

Your mobile phonebook will synchronize with your social network. When you change your address or phone number, it will immediately update in your friends' phones. Your profile information and status will be there too making the phonebook much more colorful and rich with information. Posting to a friend's wall or sending a private message will all be possible from the phonebook. Expect to see deeper relationships between mobile phone manufacturers and social networks.

Social Challenges

Finally, let's look at the challenges ahead. First and foremost is information privacy. Facebook already got burned with Beacon and needs to work hard to rebuild any trust lost. Beacon went too far and published user's activities from outside the social network. This caused a lot of ire and even a lawsuit in one instance. Of even greater concern is the potential for interaction between ususpecting children and sexual predators who portray themselves as trusting and understanding online friends. There is no easy way for social networks to police these interactions or to even identify potential predators mostly because user profiles are totally unverified and can be completely fabricated. We can expect the privacy issue to grow as the social networks expand in size and scope. Their first priority should be maintaining the user's trust and safety.

Another issue with growth is dilution of the core product. As social networks add new features like the ones I've described above, they need to be careful not to dilute the original value proposition or overwhelm users with too many options and confuse them. There is a delicate balancing act in maintaining a tight focus while adding new functionality.

The last challenge I will highlight is human behavior. Social networking is highly psychological in nature. It is how people interact with each other and goes to the core of the human condition. We can expect many surprises as result of this. In releasing a new product, we can conduct focus groups, do quantitative research, have the best product and interface designers and for reasons no one other than Malcolm Gladwell can understand, it doesn't take. If you invest in the right resources and research, it becomes less likely but there are still no guarantees.         Share on Facebook