Webreakstuff blog

Solving the social network problem

Lets get straight to the point: there’s a big problem with social networks – the fact that there’s a new one every day. Now this would be all fine if people didn’t care, but that brings me to the second problem: people do care, and generally love to be a part of these things. The social network for music (wait, two), the one for contacts, the one with photos, the one for 43 random things – the list goes on (heck, there’s Ning packing over 80.000 of these). Crazy. But within the chaos, something in common – you and your friends.

If you’re like me, you’re tired of having to add friends or accept friend requests in all of these networks. It makes sense to connect to people in these services (that’s how you get the value out of them), but it’s really tricky to control it. It’s a huge burden to manage all this network structure – this needs a fix.

A potential fix to the problem

I’ve been thinking about how OpenId and Microformats could play into this, and apparently, I’m not alone. We already have the identification through OpenID, there’s hCard+XFN that can provide the necessary bits of information about ourselves (and our friends) to the network, why not create a mechanism allowing networks to save us the trouble of adding friends, accepting requests and setting up preferences?

Process: I want networks to ask me, right off the bat when signing up, if I already have a profile that can be imported in (through hCard+XFN). I type in the URL for my OpenID and the network gets my information (gets OpenID page, downloads hCard formatted information, builds my user information based on that). Then it can grab my list of friends from XFN formatted data. With one textfield (the URL for either my OpenID or a profile on a different network), it would pre-populate both my information and the information for friends I want to add. Sweet.

A good start: A few social networks already have microformatted data on user profiles (Last.FM, Dopplr, Twitter and Cork’d), meaning any other network could easily consume this data when you sign-up, saving you a load of trouble – which is exactly what Dopplr (being smart as it is) does. Now if other networks would tag along, that would be superb.

Because, really, we do love participating in these sites, and we love having fancy profiles with all our friends on there, but actually going through the trouble of setting that up every single time is crazy. Social network developers, help us out here, we’re going bankrupt. Thoughts? Notes of frustration? Suggestions? Feel free to leave a comment on this story.

Update: Seems like Wired picked up on the need for open social networking platforms and published an article by Scott Gilbertson called “Slap in the Facebook”. Nothing you haven’t read in the blogosphere in the last couple of days, but still a good read. Go have a look if you will.

18 comments
  1. sofia says: August 2, 200710:52 pm

    Hello / Olá :)

    This post might interest you: http://www.brianoberkirch.com/2007/08/02/designing-portable-social-networks/

  2. Fred Oliveira says: August 2, 200711:17 pm

    Sofia: thanks for the link – I did read Brian’s post (he’s a personal friend). It’s a great thing people are gathering up around this topic – particularly people who can make a difference with social network stakeholders and developers. Thanks for the link, too, other readers appreciate it ;-)

  3. [...] gibt aber schon interessante Überlegungen und Ansätze, wie diesem Effekt bei zu kommen sei, teilweise wohl auch schon weit [...]

  4. Uno de Waal says: August 3, 20079:16 am

    Cool post (delicioused and subbed to your rss :)

    We’re building a teen social network and hopefully we’ll be supporting microformats and OpenID.

  5. Marko Bijelic says: August 3, 200711:30 am

    Good point, Fred.

  6. Effair (remiprevost.com) says: August 6, 20072:37 pm

    Le problème des réseaux sociaux…

    Un excellent article de Fred Oliveira sur les réseaux sociaux. Il y parle entre autres des solutions apportées aux problèmes de la “portabilité” des profils et des réseaux de contacts, par, entre autres, des microfo…

  7. [...] Solving the Social Network Problem [...]

  8. bex says: August 8, 20071:52 am

    Aw crap! You scooped me!

    I added a bit more to this debate, going as far as saying that decent identity management would destroy “walled garden” social networks like Facebook:

    http://bexhuff.com/identity-management-will-destroy-social-software

    I hope Ning and del.icio.us adopt OpenID… It would give me a warm fuzzy to see the “Me Too!” sites come crashing down…

  9. Social Networks have a Big Problem says: August 11, 20074:41 pm

    [...] Fred Oliveira of the Webreakstuff blog decided to talk about the elephant in the room earlier this month. There’s a new social network going online every day and its a big elephant that everyone wants to ignore. This wouldn’t be such a problem, except for some reason people like to join them all. It’s gotten to the point that individuals are spending so much time managing their friends and different accounts that they tend to be a lot less social. [...]

  10. Gino Zahnd says: August 11, 200711:13 pm

    I agree with a few of your points about OpenID, however, I don’t think it is “crazy” to set up different profiles on different sites.

    Let’s take me, for example. I much prefer to keep my profiles separate, because I want to convey different, sometimes vastly different, things about myself to people in different contexts. Simple, right?

    OpenID might be a good option in some cases, but thus far I’ve not even wanted to use it for the aforementioned reasons. Maybe good for some, but not for me.

    Oh, and I don’t think Flickr is a social network. Its roots might, might, might be remotely planted in that realm (after all, we still, for the time being, offer the Singleness option in your profile, but vibrant communities and tools that allow you to share photos with other folks != social network.

  11. Sérgio Santos says: August 12, 20073:28 pm

    There’s also a problem that still needs to be addressed and that probably keeps many people from wanting to have a global group of friends, like Gino Zahnd said. Not all friends are equal.

    While XFN (http://gmpg.org/xfn/11) does a sufficient job on the distinction of personal and professional ‘friends’, there’s the need for further specification. I have friends at Last.fm with who I only share music tastes, and so on Flickr, Vimeo, etc…

    If I want to keep on a page the XFN specification of all my social network, I will need a bit more than ‘met’, ‘contact’ or ‘friend’.

  12. bignose says: August 26, 200710:54 am

    Gino:

    > I agree with a few of your points about OpenID, however, I don’t think it is “crazy” to set up different profiles on different sites.

    It’s not that it’s crazy *to* set up those different profiles. What’s crazy is being *required* to set up different profiles even in cases where you want them connected.

    > Let’s take me, for example. I much prefer to keep my profiles separate, because I want to convey different, sometimes vastly different, things about myself to people in different contexts. Simple, right?

    Yes, it is simple. Set up a bunch of OpenIDs — at the same provider, or different ones — and then use each one in the different ways you like. But for each profile, use it at as many or as few *different* social-network sites as you like, to connect the disparate pieces of a profile together.

    At least, that’s how it should work; and it lets people have as many, or as few, profiles as they wish.

  13. Mark Scrimshire says: August 29, 20073:47 am

    Fred,

    I agree. Social Networks need portability. OpenID and Microformats have great potential in solving this problem. I also want to see the solution include portable reputation. Many of us have spent years building a reputation around a particular screen name or handle. Why can’t we leverage that reputation as we join a new social network and why can’t I add the reputation quotient from my latest social network back in to my aggregated reputation.

  14. [...] Webreakstuff got it right, methinks, when they mused about the value of OpenID and microformats to help open up social networks from this perspective: I want networks to ask me, right off the bat when signing up, if I already have a profile that can be imported in (through hCard+XFN). I type in the URL for my OpenID and the network gets my information (gets OpenID page, downloads hCard formatted information, builds my user information based on that). Then it can grab my list of friends from XFN formatted data. With one textfield (the URL for either my OpenID or a profile on a different network), it would pre-populate both my information and the information for friends I want to add. Sweet. [...]

  15. [...] Solving the social network problem [...]

  16. [...] Webreakstuff got it right, methinks, when they mused about the value of OpenID and microformats to help open up social networks from this perspective: I want networks to ask me, right off the bat when signing up, if I already have a profile that can be imported in (through hCard+XFN). I type in the URL for my OpenID and the network gets my information (gets OpenID page, downloads hCard formatted information, builds my user information based on that). Then it can grab my list of friends from XFN formatted data. With one textfield (the URL for either my OpenID or a profile on a different network), it would pre-populate both my information and the information for friends I want to add. Sweet. [...]

  17. Allen J. says: October 13, 20093:53 am

    It will be very interesting to see all the social networking sites use these features and extend it to adding friends, pictures and their entire profiles. I think http://www.netyab.com is already doing it

  18. Social software concerns says: July 16, 20104:52 am

    [...] Webreakstuff got it right, methinks, when they mused about the value of OpenID and microformats to help open up social networks from this perspective: I want networks to ask me, right off the bat when signing up, if I already have a profile that can be imported in (through hCard+XFN). I type in the URL for my OpenID and the network gets my information (gets OpenID page, downloads hCard formatted information, builds my user information based on that). Then it can grab my list of friends from XFN formatted data. With one textfield (the URL for either my OpenID or a profile on a different network), it would pre-populate both my information and the information for friends I want to add. Sweet. [...]

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