Monday, November 26, 2007


Social Networking Sites are the Diseases of the Internet

Update: 11/27

I usually don't say much about online social networks since Danah Boyd pretty much says everything that needs to be said. The exception to this rule seems to be matters of privacy policy and even here I've learned the futility of my speech.

However, today's spot on article by Cory Doctorow How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers Will Kill Facebook finally gave me the motivation to talk again about online social networks.

First, an online social network is not the same thing as online social networking. Online social networks need not be about online social networking. LinkedIn, MySpace and Friendster are online social networking sites because the main point is to grow the network like a virus (one might argue that linkedin is mainly about getting business done but i don't think that's the main point).

The fax network is given as an example of Metcalfe's law. Cory hints at the difference but does not make it clear. Let's make it clear. The fax network has a main purpose beyond spreading like a virus.

These social networking sites have a security flaw. They work too well. They are epidemics and they are not where we find collective intelligence (although Twitter may be the exception - but unlike the 3 named, it has a main point besides growth - plus, it can't spread like a virus because it breaks almost every day)

The reality we are seeing is distorted due to survivorship bias. We generally only see the online social networks that succeeded through having no point and spreading virally: the social networking sites. We talk about them because that's where so many people are squandering their time. And because of the survivorship bias we make unnecessary assumptions: friends lists must be shared. Well, guess what? You can have a social network without sharing your friends list. That may inhibit the growth of the site, but it also doesn't create conditions for futile existence either and it forces the question of having a main point. Of course, I'm not saying sharing your friends list is always bad, but keeping it private does eliminate all of the problems Cory identifies:
It's not just Facebook and it's not just me. Every "social networking service" has had this problem and every user I've spoken to has been frustrated by it. I think that's why these services are so volatile: why we're so willing to flee from Friendster and into MySpace's loving arms; from MySpace to Facebook. It's socially awkward to refuse to add someone to your friends list -- but removing someone from your friend-list is practically a declaration of war. The least-awkward way to get back to a friends list with nothing but friends on it is to reboot: create a new identity on a new system and send out some invites
Somebody once said "I already belong to a social network. It's called the Internet." (I'm sure it's googleable)

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