Monday, March 9, 2009

Small is beautiful – bringing intimacy to social networking

Hanging out on Facebook today is social like going to a party or reunion with 300 people you went to school with is social.

Sure it can be fun. You run into a lot of folks you know or used to know. Some you may be happy to see. Others you say a polite hello to, but you really don't want to hear about the minutia of their lives, see pictures of their kids, learn about the struggles they are having at work.

It's just not all that interesting. Now imagine that the party happens every day. Phuh!
Today's social networking sites are not well suited for intimate and truly personal social sharing and communication. That's because social networks are getting bigger by the minute, and as they grow they are becoming impersonal and turning into directories of people you know, with a a "bulletin board" and an inbox. Or according to a recent article in The Economist:
...people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,” says Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project
Don't get me wrong. I love Facebook and look to my newsfeed as valuable source of updates of a certain kind. When my “friends” post status messages that are funny or informative or news articles that match my interest it provides great value. The same applies to Twitter and other social utilities. Yet I do not feel comfortable sharing intimate or personal information in this environment because I would be sharing it with almost four hundred people ranging from family, to friends, to high school buddies, to business associates and sundry others. So when I considered where to share photos from a recent family trip, Facebook was not an option for me.

Yet I do want my close friends and family to see and comment on my personal photos. I also want to post status updates and have various other online social exchanges with different groups of friends and colleagues.
There is no good solution for more private, group oriented social sharing today. Sharing is an all or nothing proposition. As I have scoured the landscape I find that traditional online groups services like Yahoo! Groups or Google Groups can be a partial solution to my social sharing needs. Sometimes private blogs or email may suffice. All useful tools, but they don’t support the powerful ability that social networks have to post status updates, post media, comment and easily track all of the above (and more) in an “activity feed”.

We need something new, something I am going to call social networks for groups, or just “social groups”. Social groups are kind of a marriage of the functionality you find in social portals like Facebook and traditional online groups services like Yahoo Groups. Social groups provide a way for groups of people with a real-world connections to engage and share in an environment where they don't have to worry about who sees what. Social groups are for groups of people who already know each other, mirroring “real life” relationships and connecting us online.

Against a backdrop of high unemployment, economic uncertainty and globalism we seek connection, a sense of belonging and community. Social groups can support connection and community by giving people who know and care about each other ways to easily share and stay in touch through private and intimate ongoing and ephemeral exchanges. Why should there only be one place to congregate and “be social”? And does it make sense that all your four hundred “friends” are there every time you want to share something? In real life you belong to different social groups. Some open. Some closed. Why not online?Social groups are a natural evolution of the social net. The future of social networks has to be a future that facilitates sharing and discussing the things we care about with the different groups of people we care about. We will belong to many social groups and they will by their nature be smaller than today's social networks.

Small is beautiful because small is intimate and because small is personal.

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