How Windows 8 Changes Everything, Part III: The Nature of Social Media (And What a Blast from the Past Means for the Future of Facebook)

For a lot of people, social media ARE the internet.
John Allison, creator, Scary Go Round and Bad Machinery

It’s becoming apparent to me that most people do not use the Internet the way I do.

I am not a social media fiend. The only social network I’m on is Twitter, and I’m not even sure I use Twitter the same way most people do; I only follow 15 or so people on Twitter and I can’t even imagine following much more than that. I get the sense that for many people, social media completely defines their online life, serving as their gateway to the rest of the Internet, to the point that any attempt to understand the workings of the Internet, from the failure of RSS to catch on to what a post-Web future of the sort Chris Anderson describes might look like even now, has to start with social networking first and foremost.

When Google Plus launched nearly two years ago, it made a big deal about its “Circles” feature, which recognized that people don’t have just one type of friend. Circles allowed you to sort your contacts into groups, such as friends, family, coworkers, more distant relatives, college buddies, and so on. It struck me that this model was the opposite of Twitter: when I first discovered Twitter, I applauded it for recognizing that “following” someone wasn’t necessarily reciprocal like “friendship” has to be on Facebook, but Twitter allows you to follow anyone’s tweets without requiring them to follow you back, while Google+ was effectively allowing you to determine who received whatever messages you sent, without their input.

What would a social network be like that combined the two? Well, anyone could choose to “follow” any of the public postings of anyone else. A person could then organize the people who follow them into groups, like Google+’s circles; perhaps they’d receive a notification whenever someone they followed followed them or vice versa, asking if they’d like to place that person in any of their circles, or perhaps someone could ask to join any of their circles, similar to how Facebook’s “friendship” works now. Some of their posts would continue to be public, while others would be restricted to certain circles. You’d effectively have two different levels of “following”: a basic level allowing you to follow anyone and anything, like how many people use social media now, and a deeper level for your actual friends, indeed as many “deeper levels” as you want. This would serve as a curb on the proliferation of “friends” that plagues Facebook, and it could also allow the social network to be more open; many if not most Facebook profiles are closed to nonmembers, and often even to people who aren’t friends. With this system, anyone could still have a public timeline anyone could view like on Twitter, but they could still restrict some of their postings to people they’re closer to, which Twitter can’t do except in the form of “direct messages” (which no one uses) and restricting the whole account to followers only.

Perhaps we could take this further, and somehow recognize when an actual group of people all (or almost all) count one another as friends, or in analogous circles. The social network could recognize this group as a self-contained group in its own right, enabling them to better organize and converse with one another as a group. This doesn’t have to be limited to an actual circle of friends; in fact, the great shortcoming of most social networks is its inability to recognize groups of people with a common interest and serve as a place for them to discover one another and talk about that interest with one another. As such, people with common interests end up fractured among many different sites, often blogs that become a hub for the community even though they may not work well for this purpose. When I launched the forum, I said that forums still had a place in an era of blogs and social media, as a place for a community to gather and talk about common interests, but why have a forum and a collection of whatever other sites are out there for this purpose when anyone interested in a topic can connect with everything everyone else is doing and saying in that topic in a single place, perhaps one that can accommodate blogging as well?

Being able to serve as not just a site that can be all things to all people, but to specifically connect people with common interests, might be the one great advantage that someone might yet be able to topple Facebook with. The social network that can best Facebook is one that can leverage the network advantages of having everyone on there, yet also cater to specific interests. In that sense, it may be a flashback to the original social network, Usenet, but adapted for the modern web. Were that to happen, it could be the last break from the Web as we know it now and the ultimate realization of Chris Anderson’s vision. Farhad Manjoo thinks this is impossible, that no social network that claims to be all things to all people can also serve as a social network for a particular interest. I think it can if it opens up the toolbox so that the community surrounding a particular topic can customize their own corner of the network with all the functionality they could possibly want. That probably means the social network of the future will have to be open source – and without the ability to monetize it, that will make it very difficult to run.

Perhaps the social network of the future is already under construction, in the form of WordPress’ BuddyPress plugin. This plugin allows any WordPress site to set up their own social network within it, something that seems kind of odd to me; the network effects of social networks are such that any social network for a particular site would seem to have limited utility. But if someone were to set up a competitor to Facebook and run it on BuddyPress, it could catch on like wildfire, if only among people concerned about Facebook becoming just another evil company with little regard for privacy – but that might be enough to attract everyone else in the long term, if it truly embraces the open-source ethos. One thing I know for sure: I’ve finally closed up shop on the Morgan Wick Forum, which had become little more than a wretched hive of spam and villainy, and if and when I relaunch it, it’s probably going to be with BuddyPress installed (if only because that might be the only way to get some of the functionality, like high-level mod tools and private messages, I’m looking for).

Or perhaps the social network of the future won’t be a single site at all, but rather new technologies and protocols to link people together without the need of a central site. This is the dream behind the notion of the “semantic web“, the idea that all you need to do is put all your relevant information in a single place in a common format and it will follow you anywhere, capable of being read and understood by anything – a concept that could be key to a truly post-HTML future. It’s hard to imagine what such a decentralized social network might look like, but that hasn’t stopped some people from trying. The growth of devices like the iPad and Surface that are so tightly connected to the Internet may help bring the semantic web into reality, or at least make it more possible, and in that sense, perhaps the real clue to the social network of the future may lie in the “People” tile in Windows 8 and Windows Phone. As more and more people move to the cloud, and to devices like the Surface that are constantly registered with an account that connects them to that cloud, it’s only a matter of time before the accounts their devices are registered with are used to help form a new kind of social network – one that might not have a single identity at all, and one that might truly define the Internet for its users. All it would take is a way for iOS, Android, and Windows users to communicate with each other seamlessly.

So in retrospect, why did we end up abandoning Usenet, anyway?

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