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The Core of Social Networks

Social Network – what is the main activity of a social network site?

There are innumerable kinds of sites on which a social network can be built, but only so many are social networking sites per se.

Basically, any site that requires the user to have a profile can become a social networking site. The prime nature of the site however dictates how much of a social networking site it is, as opposed to an interests-sharing facility.

Blogs – blogging sites (e.g. LiveJournal, Blogger, …) are used by people who enjoy writing and/or sharing opinions. Whether it be about the days events in a mundane life, a tech review, articles about your latest recipes, deliberation on the latest film, or even a political platform, it’s where Text is. Profile owners’ main activity is writing. Most users’ activity is reading. You can build a small social net in such an environment for the sake of keeping up to date with the latest banter, but there’s hardly much “social networking” rather than “intellectual networking.” It’s a high tech way of subscribing to a massive letters-to-the-editor column.

Media Share – media sharing sites (Flickr, YouTube, …) also offer the possibility of social networking, but most activity is browsing and watching. Maybe one will subscribe to another user’s feed to keep up with their postings because they often have something of good quality. Maybe they have their own podcast to share with the world. Who knows. But it’s not really a “social net” – rather the next best thing after TV. Pick and choose your channels, and say what’s in this hour’s show guide.

Dating Sites – okay, here’s a social net, with a particularity. It’s definitely focused on the person you’re dealing with – but it’s not so much a social net than an interactive directory. I assume most of the people you would add to your list will be forgotten within the week, with only really a handful being kept in the long term, in which case they’ll move to…

The email list – the social net per excellence, the first ever on the web. In my view a social network utility is just that – a utility. The Social Networking Utility (let me call it a SNU if I want) does little more than provide a framework for interacting with people. With email, the main function is staying in contact with people, and interacting directly with them. The only actions ever performed (apart form maybe adding a contact) are reading emails directed at you, and writing emails to specific contacts.

A social network for me is a way for me to keep up to date with my friends. This includes sending them messages, and from time to time seeing photos of their latest antics. In the messages section, coordinating calendars is the next step up. Whereas in emails one merely states the happening of an event, an Event Signpost can be set up. This is true with sites like FaceBook and MySpace (on the latter, musicians can setup gig dates and advertise these; on the former, nearly any kind of event is possible).

The main activity on a social networking site should be interacting with contacts. Bloggers write articles. Sharers generally post content without a thought of anyone in particular in mind. Daters search, chat, and move on. MySpacers are busy customizing and adding content to their profiles. FaceBookers are busy biting eachother digitally, or throwing pixelated poo at each others profiles. Nice. SNUsers send messages and organize events.

But what bugs me most is this: the concept of the social net is all in the structure – in the protocol. Never mind if you’re signed up for an author’s site. Never mind if your profile is mainly concerned with music videos. Who cares if your profile is always up to date with the latest info on you (well, apart from those looking for a person like you…). Between these different kinds of profiles, there should be a standard means of communication and search.

If you’re a photographer on Flickr and you want to discuss a project with your pal on YouTube, and get some cool concepts in the plan from an artist on Deviant Art – there should be a means to a) contact all of them at once and b) setup an event to all at once. Maybe you want to host a party for all your artist friends, whether they’re on one socialnet, another, or even if they are on none and they just have their profile. Why could’t you keep this list of friends of all SNUs in the same place?

Well that’s what I am hoping to set out to solve with the PUMP (Private User Message Protocol), a messaging protocol project, and SOUP (Simple Online User Profile), my profile buiding/sharing project which together are intended to rule the net as the ultimate SNU.

Nah, I’m hardly ambitious….. :-p

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