If you’ve signed up for more than a couple of social networks, you’ve undoubtedly experienced the syndrome of seeing your mailbox clutter up each morning with notifications about messages, invitations or comments you’ve received from other members. This deluge can become so annoying that you may simply choose to relegate many of these notices to the black hole of your spam filter.
Welcome to the dirty world of the early social Web, a time of chaos and incompatibility that is stifling the real utility of these marvelous new networks.
If you’ve been around for a few years, you may remember a similar state of affairs from the pre-Web days. Back in the early days of electronic mail, users of CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy and other branded networks were unable to exchange e-mail with non-subscribers. Even after Internet e-mail had been broadly accepted, America Online clung to its members-only prohibition for some time in the foolhardy belief that it could force members to stay within the fold.
Today’s social networks suffer from some of the same limitations. Each has its own profiling system, internal messaging, collaboration systems and applications. Some aggregators like FriendFeed gather up member activity from multiple sites, but such services are mainly limited to collecting RSS feeds. There is no such thing as an integrated online profile.
This profusion of information smokestacks won’t last. Two competing standards – one from Facebook and the other from Google — are duking it out to create a standard single identity that travels with Web users. If you’ve signed in to Google and looked up your own name recently you’ve probably noticed that Google now prompts you to fill out a profile. This sketchy self-description is the beginnings of a broader reach by Google to make the entire Web into a social network.
In the socialized future, people’s identities will travel with them and their details shared selectively with others within their social network. Profiles will develop incredible richness as details of each person’s preferences, connections, memberships and activities are centralized. It will probably be a year or two before this concept begins to take shape. Regardless of whether Facebook or Google wins the standards war, the social network metaphor will become ubiquitous.
Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang has called this next stage of evolution the “era of social colonization.” Once every website takes on social network characteristics, the utility of the Web will change dramatically. We will increasingly rely upon the activities and recommendations of others to help us make decisions. Sites like Yelp, ThisNext and Kaboodle already provide a rudimentary form of this functionality, but they are limited by their closed nature.
One social bookmarking service I use – Diigo.com – provides a glimpse of what the social Web may look like. Diigo (and a similar service called WebNotes) enables members to highlight and comment upon Web pages or passages and share them with others in their network. Visitors can read and add to existing comments in the same way that editors annotate and build upon a draft document. Imagine if the capabilities were expanded to include star ratings, multimedia, discussions and other interactive features. That’s when the social Web really gets exciting.
The ripple effects of this shift should be dramatic. Imagine a future in which your company homepage becomes a giant group product review. Forrester’s Owyang foresees a future in which marketing becomes oriented around customer recommendations. There will be no choice. Companies may lose control of the messages on even their own websites as visitors share their own impressions.
Owyang also believes companies will have to customize their Web experiences as visitors selectively share information about their interests and preferences. This information will become a kind of currency. We will grant brands and institutions selective access to information about ourselves in exchange for discounts and specialized services. The shift from mass to custom will take a giant step forward.
Today’s social networks are no more representative of the Internet of the future than Prodigy was of the Web we know today. These will be incredibly exciting developments to watch. We just have to get past the necessary evil of a standards war in order to appreciate them.