So, first off, what's a Social Network? Well, in the current parlance, a social network is basically an online network where the nodes are people and the links between nodes are some sort of social relationship - generally a nebulous sort of "friendship". I'm part of a bunch, thanks to being friends with a.) trendy New Yorkers and b.) geeks. I just recently joined Orkut, and have had memberships on the other major ones (Friendster, Tribe, maybe one or two others?) and some less-major ones (I can't even remember their names, honestly). The basic concept behind all of these sites is that you sign up, fill out a profile, and then proceed to link to the people you know. (Or rather, the people you have some sort of a relationship with - although you can't generally specify what sort. More on that later.) Using the network built from these links, you can then find other people with similar interests, or at least some similar address books. You can look for dates (the only use of Friendster anyone seems to have found yet), or form communities of strangers, or even post Craigslist-style to a group of people so small and disconnected as to be nearly useless. Sounds brilliant, right?
Well, as useless as they appear to be so far, there's a certain addictive property to them, when done correctly. It's an online replication of the entire high school clique system - who's friends with who, who's dating who, and who cares? It's fun to click around for a while, seeing where the links are, but gets old quickly. The only one that's held my attention at all is Orkut, but that's mainly just because it's affiliated with Google and so a.) fast and b.) intriguing.
There are a lot of rants going around about Orkut and the other social networks, and I'll link to them, but first, a few of my own thoughts.
1.) There's no cost to doing anything - and if there's no cost, there's no value, either. Orkut introduces the idea of "fans" and giving the people on your friends list ratings in three categories: cool, trustworthy, and sexy. Of course, they provide no real definition - what does it really mean if you're a fan of someone? Are you really a fan of your friends? A fan is "an ardent devotee", and while I suppose that's sometimes true of your friends, hopefully it's not that true that often. Friendship implies a closeness that "fanship" does not - there's a mystique to being someone's fan, and a distance (usually). Ok, but past that, what about the ratings? Well, they need some context to be useful, but I guess they work. The only thing is, there's no cost to being someone's fan, or rating them. So what does it mean? What's the downside to rating everyone on your list perfectly and saying you're a fan of all of them?
The problem is that without associating some sort of cost with the ratings (or, for that matter, the friend-links), they become meaningless very quickly. For instance, 6 of my 10 friends have added me to their fan list. What the hell does that mean? Only 60% of my friends actually like me? Or does it mean 60% of my friends idolize me? Or does it, more likely, just mean that 60% of my friends bothered to go through their lists and rate anyone? Most likely the latter, I think. Not only that, but since the fan system isn't anonymous, it suddenly carries a social pressure to reciprocate. The rating system, at least, is anonymous so there's less pressure to automatically rate people simply because they rated you.
2.) No definition or weighting of the links. This is something they all seem to fail at. They let you link to someone - but don't let you specify what that link means, or how strong it is. Your blood brother gets the same link as that distant acquaintance that you linked back to out of guilt. There's a sense of distance - friend of vs. friend of friend, for instance (all the way up to 4 or 5 or 6 degrees, depending on the service), but what does that mean? I'd argue the 4th degree friend, going along a chain of close friendships, is closer than the 2nd degree acquaintance of an acquaintance. But even going out to the 2nd degree, what the hell does that actually signify? Because I like and trust you, I should like and trust your friends? And without some weighting, I have no idea if that person is your best, most trusted friend, or just a guilt-trip aquaintance.
What happens when I consider someone a good friend and they don't really like me, or vice versa? Or how about if I consider someone a good business contact but not a friend at all? The terminology and links start to fall apart at that point. If I'm going to use it for anything (except maybe dating), I want to know how the relationships work - after all, being the coworker of a friend doesn't make you more appealing as a social partner (of any type), and being the friend of a friend doesn't make you any more useful as a business contact (most of the time - there are of course exceptions to any rule).
3.) What's the point? I think this is what's bothering me the most. Once you get past the initial curiosity, what's the real use of these social networks? They seem like they have a lot of potential, but in their current incarnation I wouldn't really think of them as being genuinely useful for anything (see points 1 and 2 above). I guess they're interesting as a way to pick up chicks - I can search for all of the females in my social network within x miles of my zip code, for instance - but even then, how is that really any more useful than doing a search through Match or Springstreet (or - plug plug - Blackplanet Love or Asianavenue Flirt*)? Would you really want to find a roommate or sell something or hire someone just because they're in your social network? And even if you would, the search doesn't really help you find those sorts of people (you can't search on anything useful for anything other than dating) and the bulletin board functionality won't generally let you isolate it to just those people that might be interested... meaning, of course, that the signal to noise ratio will be almost as high through your social network as it would be on someplace like Craigslist.
Tribe and Orkut have communities (tribes on Tribe, shockingly enough). Those are interesting, because they unite people through their affiliations or interests rather than just their existing social connections... but then for the most part they don't allow you to use the information. For instance, if I'm going to do a search for a potential new hire, I'd want to be able to use some intersecting data - say, who is in my network and ALSO in one of my tech communities AND within 50 miles of the zip code where I work AND has listed one of a handful of related keywords somewhere in their professional profile? That's not sufficient information, really, but at least it makes the search results somewhat useful.
Ok. So those are my top-3 gripes, but I've got plenty of others. How about the fact that you can't selectively choose who sees your professional vs. dating vs. general profiles? What if I only want coworkers (or other business contacts of coworkers) to see my professional profile, but I want an entirely different group (single women) to see my dating profile? Or, for that matter, if I want them to be entirely separate? Maybe I'd like to use my real name with my professional profile, and a fake name (or none at all) for my dating profile, since I don't know that I'd want a current or potential employer finding out what turns me on, and I don't know if I'd want someone interested in dating me knowing what I do for a living. (But hey, maybe I would. I dunno.) There's the issues with privacy, since these social networks end up collecting a hell of a lot of data on you. There are the technical issues, like the poor performance almost all of them exhibit, or the fact that you're so limited in how you can find new people that they become almost useless (see the above note on searching on more individual data points and more intersecting data).
Jeremy Zawodny has an interesting post on the meaning of Orkut for the likes of Google: easily mineable and attributable information on users, something they've lacked (or at least not had packaged quite so neatly) in the past.
Just think about it for a few minutes. If you've been thru the Orkut registration process, you know that it attempts to collect a ton of data about you. The kind of demographic data that marketing folks drool over. And right now there are lots of folks dying to get that special invite and begin the sign-up process.
Still with me? Good.
Let's assume that Google internationalizes Orkut and lets it run to the point that it has millions of users registered and active. That's not an unreasonable thing to expect. Then, one day down the road, they quietly decide to "better integrate" Orkut with Google and start redirecting all Orkut requests to orkut.google.com.
Suddenly they're able to set a *.google.com cookie that contains a bit of identifying data (such as your Orkut id) and that would greatly enhance their ability to mine useful and profitable data from the combination of your profile and daily searches.
There's a very interesting series of posts on Zephoria, including some rants about Orkut which start here. Best of all are her links to many, many other commentaries and rants.
Lago has a great post about social networks here, pointing out some of the key flaws in the entire thinking process behind them (or at least in how they're "sold").
Finally, there's a good series of posts on social software on d2r.
(There are some definite crossovers in those links, but I was just trying to get you to some of the more interesting posts first. There's a lot of good material in the links from those posts as well, so go a'readin'!)
Anyways, that's about it. In other news, I almost choked when I heard Stevie Wonder's Pastime Paradise and I realized where Gangsters' Paradise (Coolio) came from. I feel stupid now. I wonder if Coolio gives him any credit anywhere.
* - Look, I didn't name them, ok?