Social networks and social messaging tools are evolving rapidly. Here’s where they’ve been and (maybe) where they’re going.
The first wave (Friendster, MySpace, Orkut) introduced interlinked personal profile pages — plots of online land where users could post profile information, text, and photos without knowing HTML. Many profiles were open to the public, but users had the option of keeping them private (and hidden from parents) while granting friends reciprocal access rights to profile information, updates, and photos.
More than any other social network, MySpace placed heavy emphasis on profile page customization, allowing users to heavily modify their pages with graphics, photos, music, HTML, and CSS. These modifications sometimes resulted in profiles that were virtually unreadable, but users embraced customization as a form of digital self-expression.
It’s human nature in the offline world to have a few close friends and a large group of casual friends and acquaintances. Online, users seemed to behave the same way at first, following a few friends’ profile pages closely while largely ignoring the rest. This approach worked for keeping track of a few people at a time when most of the world had never heard of a social network, but it didn’t scale with the growing number of users and a massive increase in activity per user. Perhaps more importantly, it didn’t take advantage of computing power to sort through all user activity and present it coherently if that activity was structured in ways that could be parsed.
Facebook was first to act decisively on this issue. Understanding that a dashboard scaled better and provided more insight into what was happening across a user’s network, Facebook redesigned the home page to place heavy emphasis on its mini-feed. Unlike MySpace, Facebook had always shown a preference for unformatted text over HTML-formatted content. (Facebook’s “clean” user interface has been cited frequently as one reason for Facebook’s popularity, but the connection between a clean UI and unformatted, structured data often goes unnoticed.) Database-friendly features like status updates and photo tagging worked very well in the new system. It wasn’t perfect and it forced users to express themselves in short, pithy updates instead of in full HTML glory, but it was a major improvement over the old method and users embraced the concept after the initial shock wore off.
Meanwhile, a technology shift was in motion that reinforced Facebook’s data-over-personalization approach. As mobile phones became a practical way of interacting with social networks, the ability to customize a personal home page became an irrelevant, even problematic, feature for MySpace. Short text updates and still photos work well on mobile devices when they are aggregated into a single page, eliminating the need to visit multiple friends’ pages on a slow mobile connection. This trend has yet to fully play out, but the consequences are far-reaching.
The one big problem with Facebook’s mini-feed model as it was originally designed was the system for selecting which updates to display from which people. Facebook’s methodology was a black box, and users were left wondering if they were missing activity (they were). Facebook’s approach to the problem was a clunky system that let users influence but not control the people and message types (status updates, photos, videos, etc.) displayed in the mini-feed. Still, users could only be assured of seeing 100% of a friend’s activity by visiting that friend’s profile page directly. In my own experience, the more friends I added and invited I accepted, the less relevant the mini-feed became. My network now includes people from my hometown who I haven’t seen in years, and it turns out that I don’t actually want to know what they’re up to, at least not on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, Twitter — the most lightweight social network — was growing like a weed. Twitter’s 140-character updates and the concept of one-way following was clearly striking a chord with users and scaring the living daylights out of Facebook, which was rejected in its offer to buy the company.
It feels like almost all Twitter users in the US are on Facebook, but there are a lot of Facebook users who are not on Twitter. That gap seems to be narrowing every day. Personally, I’ve used Twitter as a filtering mechanism. I generally follow only my closest friends on Twitter, so the volume of updates is manageable. The fact that I have far more connections on Facebook made it oddly less attractive as a communication vehicle because the signal-to-noise ration on Facebook was lower. The fact that I had to consciously decide whose updates to follow on Twitter made it more relevant.
Largely in response to Twitter’s growth but perhaps subconsciously in acknowledgment that following everyone isn’t really workable, Facebook very recently redesigned its mini-feed to address the filtering issue. As previously stated, it’s human nature to have a few close friends who we want to keep up with constantly, but computers can help enlarge that circle and keep up with more people if we’re given the right controls to manage the flow of information. Facebook replaced its algorithmically-selected mini-feed with a full-visibility stream of activity from all users. Users still see activity from every person they are connected to by default, but users have the ability to filter the feed by creating lists of friends. In many ways this is the best of both worlds – users can follow the people they care most about, but they can expand that group because the system gives them the tools necessary to filter through the activity. This is a real challenge to Twitter.
Given all of this, it’s easy to understand why Facebook might be a little stunned at the negative feedback they’re getting for the new design, since they must see it as a significant improvement over the old system and Twitter on steroids – which it pretty much is.
(I’m no stranger to user outrage myself. When we redesigned the eBay View Item page in 2003, we received tens of thousands of e-mail complaints in less than a week. I still have a 3-ring binder of the feedback on my bookshelf at home. We never seriously considered rolling it back, but I don’t care to relive the two-week period after launch before things calmed down.)
But the fact that so many Facebook users — especially newer Facebook users — are unfamiliar with Twitter and utterly clueless about how Facebook’s friend lists and stream filters work makes the concept hard to explain. Facebook botched the rollout by failing to walk (or force) users through the list creation and filtering process, but ultimately Facebook is correct not to roll back the feature. Instead they must immediately make the lists more understandable and accessible, and walk users through the process of setting them up. I have no doubt they will.
All of this puts MySpace in an interesting spot. As a major division of publically-traded News Corp, revenue is critical. MySpace’s still-massive audience gives it huge value as a marketing platform, and monetizing the service by promoting music, film, and television content is clearly a top priority for the company’s leadership. It’s unclear if MySpace can maintain its status as a top-tier social network while it’s focusing on revenue-generating features, while Facebook has decided to put revenue on the back burner while it focuses on growth through by product innovation. Perhaps these two services will diverge and become increasingly dissimilar products over time — Facebook as the primary social network and MySpace as become the primary media hub for digital content. Which raises an interesting question — what would happen if MySpace outsourced its social networking infrastructure to Facebook through Facebook Connect while it focuses on building media applications. It almost certainly won’t happen, but it’s fun to think about.
So what’s next? Predicting is a dangerous business, but here are some trends that should play out over the next few years:
1. Audience targeting
As social networks go increasingly mainstream, users will need a way to easily target messages to different audiences. (We do this in real life already. There are some stories you tell over dinner with friends that aren’t shared with co-workers at lunch, and vice-versa. The web just hasn’t caught up yet.) For example, Facebook’s new friend filters could conceivably work in reverse. Users could post content — updates, photos, etc. — that would only be available to selected friend lists. (Whether or not they’ll see it is a different matter.) The trick, from a product perspective, is in making a fairly complicated rights-and-permissions system easy to find and use, while simultaneously encouraging users to make most content accessible to everyone in his or her network. The prospect of walling off content must be frightful to the social networks, but having more control over content will ultimately drive growth for mainstream services like MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster while potentially hurting verticals like LinkedIn.
2. One-way following
To combat Twitter’s growing popularity, other social networks will introduce one-way following, at least on a limited basis. It’s a big change, but there’s really no downside if users can block followers as they can on Twitter today.
3. Social metadata and database-driven applications
This is already happening on a small scale (photo tagging is one good example), but we’re just at the beginning of this trend. Database-driven applications will continue to flourish if data is centralized, well-structured, and open to third-party developers.
4. Network search
Web search advertising makes money because search queries are good proxies for intent. As more and more information and structure is added to social networking sites, network search will become more useful and easier to monetize. That said, it will be a very different animal than web search. Twitter is actively experimenting with search, but the major social networks have a lot more data to play with.
5. Facebook Connect will become ubiquitous
Connect will change the Facebook ecosphere in ways that are not yet fully understood, but it’s rapidly becoming the PayPal of login systems (i.e. an almost universally-accepted web-friendly solution). Managing the flood of information from third-party sites will be a challenge for Facebook, but ultimately Connect should fuel Facebook’s growth by expanding its universe well beyond the Facebook domain. The biggest potential losers here are OpenID and mainstream portal sites (Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL) that completely missed the opportunity.
6. A lightweight group topic system
If you’ve ever tried to plan a trip with other people, you know that there is still no good way to manage group communication about a specific short-term topic. E-mail is the default solution but it’s really awful at handling this type of communication, and full-fledged groups (Yahoo, Ning, Facebook, etc.) are overqualified for the job. Expect to see a lightweight solution that supports messages, photos, and events across social networks. Twitter, in particular, could do an excellent job of this.
7. International expansion
To continue growing, the major US social networks must continue to expand internationally. This takes time, energy, and money -- and it's as distracting as it is necessary. The not-so-smart way to expand is to roll out the US product exactly as-is, just translated, for other markets. This is especially true in Asia where user experience expectations are radically different and mobile access is a much bigger deal. The more flexible the back-end is, the easier it will be to roll out suitable versions around the world. The key thing is remembering that what works here might not work there.