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How social networks ought to work

Note: this posting is still a work in progress

I'm tired of the multiple services through which we connect to people, and tired too of closed garden monopolies like facebook. It would be better if there were a single way to post our profiles and messages somewhere on the web, and for these to show up in whatever network we chose to view them: comments too would show up with the original post. There wouldn't be a need to join new services unless we wanted to do so, and we wouldn't need to fake interest and take membership in a certain network in order to find our friends. The appearance of our profile and postings on a given network would be up to our friends. Networks would be windows on the entire people web.

Friendfeed partly embodies this concept in its “imaginary friend” feature, though I have never really worked with this. The problem on friendfeed is that it is possible to add imaginary friends just one at a time. There is a posting on the subject of importing imaginary friends here. For Twitter Friends, some ingenious person has created an automatic script that imports all Twitter friends who are not already on Friendfeed: http://huddledmasses.org/convert-twitter-users-into-friendfeed-imaginary-friends/. I can't use that, since it works only on Windows and Internet Explorer.

Besides FriendFeed, it is possible to use other aggregators - though usually only for the main services. There is AOL Lifestream (formerly socialthing), Brizzly, Threadsy (which also does email), the Flock browser - and many others. It will be interesting to see if Google Buzz begins to add more services besides the few that it already offers.

The aggregation solution actually solves only one side of the problem.  In order to pull in friends, you still need to join networks.  In a way, it would be better if we were back in the era before social networks and everyone added their content to blogs (as I am doing now). 

There's another related issue that there is a certain meaning to the communities in which our friends "live".  In writing, they have in mind their network of people that cohabit their social network.  Kurt Starnes talks about this in a recent blog post "Going native in the age of aggregation".

We are often not interested in every aspect of our friends' activity on the web. We are interested to the extent that their interests overlap our own. We may follow a friend on Facebook due to a similar interest in social issues, but be dismayed to find that the majority of their comments are about family life. In conventional blogging, it is possible to solve this problem by assigning categories or tags to our postings. Then it should be possible to subscribe to an RSS feed on a certain topic. In Social networks, it is possible to join groups, subscribe to rooms, or create separate Twitter accounts, but most people are not very methodical about compartmentalizing their web activities. Perhaps in the future the Semantic web will find solutions to this.

Right now, if I want to follow a friend's activities on the web, there is no easy way to do so without visiting each of the networks in which s/he is engaged. Often people replicate the same content across multiple networks, though inconsistently. If I were able to centralize all of their postings in one place, such as by using Friendfeed, I would probably end up with multiple identical postings. The best is if they are using a well managed lifestreaming service, which brings together the many separate threads of their web activity. Then it would be possible to obtain an RSS feed of that page. But RSS feeds do not permit much interaction with the original content.