27 October 2007

Social Networking Re-visited

Long-time readers know that part of my motivation for starting this blog was to observe and comment on some trends in blogging and social networking. At the time, "micro-blogging" sites like Twitter and Jaiku were just making their appearance, and others like Facebook and MySpace seemed to suddenly be the focus of a lot of attention, both in the blogosphere and on Wall Street. Things change fast in the techno-world.

When I first wrote about micro-blogging just a few months ago, it was a brand-new phenomenon. After checking out a number of them, I decided a little-known start-up called Jaiku was the best of the bunch, and earlier this month, it was acquired by Google for undisclosed terms (how does a publicly traded company like Google get away with that?).

I've been mostly ignoring the growing hype about MySpace and Facebook, because I've considered them mostly US-centric phenomena. A lot of the tech press is US-based, so they often carry on about what they view as huge technology sensations that are transforming entire societies, such as the Blackberry or the Palm Treo, that are often scarcely known outside of the USA, and at the same time not even notice transformative technologies such as SMS or Skype simply because the USA is one of the few markets they haven't had an impact on. Nonetheless, I thought it was time to have a look at these two social networking megasites, and also a couple of alternatives that haven't received as much attention.

As I've mentioned in earlier postings on technology issues, one of the things that irritates me the most about many US-based sites is their US centricism. For example, use any US-produced software package or web site that requires to specify your time zone and invariably, the default time zone will be San Francisco. Other producers don't suffer from this kind of egocentrism -- Finnish-based Jaiku or Nokia, for example, logically and neutrally default to Greenwich Mean Time. Facebook is unfortunately one of those sites that goes much further in this respect. The default time zone issue is only the beginning. "Social networking" as a web-site genre is a term coined to cover those like Facebook don't fit neatly into other categories. Some use it a business networking tool, à la LinkedIn; others use it for dating, more like Meetic or Match.com. I think the emergence of the category reflects the way in which the sharp dividing lines we once maintained between our personal and professional lives are gradually fading. One result, for Facebook, is that you are asked to answer a question in your profile about your "political views". You answer this question with a drop-down box, which displays a series of linear options, ranging from "very liberal" to "very conservative," reflecting the American belief in the two-party system in which everyone's politics can be plotted along a narrow linear spectrum. There is an option for "other," and presumably the designers of the Facebook web-site see nothing even vaguely inappropriate about lumping the Fascists, Socialists, Marxists, Monarchists, Anarchists, Platonists, Theocrats, Maoists, Greens, Peasant and rural parties, Federalists, Whigs, Tories, Trade Unionists and various other parts of the political continuum into this single catch-all category. This succinctly says more about American political and social attitudes than most PhD thesis dissertations on the topic probably do.

If that was just an irritation, another short-coming of the Facebook site that really inhibits its utility is the designer's decision that members may only belong to a single geographic "network" at a time. I was added by default to the "Sweden" network based on the address I provided when I signed up; if I want to change to the "Qatar" network I must drop my membership in Sweden, and the frequency of change is limited. Again, a decision very reflective of uniquely American prejudices, and not supportive of the increasingly globalised lifestyle most of us at (at least those of us outside of the USA) are now living. As I divide my time between Sweden and Qatar, it would be sensible for me to join both networks, and also to join networks in other countries I visit regularly and where I maintain active social and business networks, such as the UK, the USA, Jordan, Hungary and Poland. Overall, I like MySpace more than FaceBook, but there are two others I think are better than either .

First is LinkedIn, which for reasons of simple utility and effectiveness is a much better business networking tool than either Facebook or MySpace. It much more down to earth, with none of the vapid time-wasting nonsense like gifts, lists, groups, chats, "poking", "writing on someone's wall," etc. It's a well-designed, serious business tool that I have already used to do business networking, find jobs and projects, and share ideas.

But my favourite social networking site of all has been evolving into such a site from very different origins. Plaxo was originally designed as a clever utility that simply allowed members to have their Outlook contact databases automatically updated whenever another member changed their contact info. No need to send out emails when you moved, or to manually update your friends' details when they moved. Later they added synching of all your Outlook data -- calendar, tasks, and notes as well as contacts -- with Plaxo on-line, which enabled you to view this data from anywhere. With the latest version, it's moved much closer to a full social networking site, and has introduced a really cool feature called "Pulse" which is a sort of way of putting all of your friends activities in more than a dozen sites -- Jaiku, Flickr, Twitter, MySpace, Del.icio.us, YouTube, Digg, etc. into a single "Pulse" stream. As a Plaxo member, I can register my accounts with all these other sites into my Pulse, and then any of my contacts can receive a notification when I send out a new Jaiku, post a new video on YouTube, add new photos on Flickr, or make a new post to my blog. That way the connections I already have on Plaxo don't have to become "Friends" on Flickr or MySpace in order to keep up with what I'm doing -- with the proliferation of these services, I'm getting overwhelmed with email request to become "friends" with people I already connect with on two or three other sites.

BlognDog
27 October 2007
Doha, Qatar

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