Federated Social Networks

Following up on yesterdays post I came across an interesting post on Seamus McCauley’s Virtual Economics blog that argues that vertical (activity/theme focused) social networks won’t win because:

 “a social network that lets people express multiple identities in multiple ways is almost always going to dominate a network that tries to confine identity within a singular niche.”

On one level he’s right; the more a network allows you to map the diversity of your identify onto the network the more useful the software will be. The issue is the expression of multiple identities has to be facilitated by software – and that means navigation, display and ease of use. All of which get easier the more you restrict diversity and options.

Compare the profile and network mapping in LinkedIn and Facebook.

LinkedIn uses an explicit template to deliver profiles based on professional accomplishments – there is very little room for ‘personality’. While it allows ‘social interaction’ in the form of Answers one must navigate away from ones profile to get the full richness of the interaction. That said the tools it provides to identify relationships as a result of your profile and network are very strong.

FaceBook takes an entirely different approach using a broader profile template but focusing much of the attention on the ‘profile’ that emerges from ones social interactions and the group connections one participates in. Network mapping is through individual and group affiliation with weaker abilities to link into ones extended network. 

The software defines how ones relationships are expressed in the social network.

What’s interesting is this light is that social networks are not just individuals – they are also organized groups of individuals with shared interests and goals. An organizational focus provides information that can shape the definition of software so it delivers value – and also surrounds it with contextually useful information that is outside the social sphere.

Of course this is won’t happen as long as the members of a social network and the applications that drive interaction are indivisible. Now I’m not an information architect but it seems to me that for a social network to be as granular and flexible as people want it will be separated in to multiple highly focused and efficient components.

Managing personal data in a flexible, accessible and inclusive way is likely more than enough of a challenge – especially given the potential volume and sources of that data – and the relationships between them (think Google for personal & relationship info). Systems to re-interpret information in light of context and new information present there own challenges – as does displaying that information in ways that are group, context, location and devise specific.

Maybe its time to think of social software, not as a single site, but as a federation that together delivers a variety of services that match my needs.

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