One social network to rule them all? A modest proposal

I realise this might sound like politician calling for a new taskforce, or a businessman calling for a new tax break, but: we need a new social network.

By this, I don’t mean that we need a new standalone service for sharing a kind of media, be it short messages, photos, videos, sound, shopping lists or anything else. Rather, what’s needed is a framework to pull all the existing Web 2.0 services together in a way that’s fluid, attractive and easy to use.

Social networking versus social publishing

In the beginning of the internet, much time and energy was spent discussing its potential to enable people to reach outside the boundaries of their everyday lives and connect in communities of shared interest. The internet enabled us to explore areas of interest our ‘real’ lives didn’t allow us to investigate: people who lived in small towns with no galleries could learn about art; fans of obscure bands or niche cuisines or unusual hobbies could connect all around the world.

Equally importantly, the web allowed us to adopt a second identity. People could embrace interests that might not be socially acceptable – from kinky sex to stamp-collecting to simple silliness – without risking their real-world reputations.

With the advent of ‘Web 2.0’ and the development of ever more methods for people to create and share content online – from Flickr for photos to YouTube and Vimeo for vidoes to Blogger, WordPress and Twitter for written thoughts – this potential of the web was enhanced. Secret identities are no longer the preserve of superheroes: now each of us can have a second persona under which we publish all manner of content and connect with strangers all over the world.

But just as these services were developing, a funny thing happened: real life started to intrude. Facebook, launched in 2004, grew like topsy to become the website many people spend most time on, and the most vital to people’s lives outside email. In the process, it became the default method of sharing photos, videos and writing for millions of people.

Facebook’s success stems largely from one thing: its grounding in real life. You join under your real name, with a real photo, and connect with your real-life friends. From its origins as a tool to grease the wheels of the stratified social scene at Harvard University, it’s become the online complement to people’s real lives, used to share holiday snaps and plan birthday parties with existing friends far more than it is to meet new people. It’s a true ‘social network’ – the only true social networking site – because it exists almost exclusively as an extension of, and facilitator of, people’s real-life social lives.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Facebook demonstrates that many people – probably the majority – are happy interacting online under their real names, and have no great desire to adopt a second persona or make contact with strangers who share their interests.

But at the same time, the continued success of self-publishing services like Flickr and Twitter shows that there remains a substantial demand for services which let you broadcast to the whole world, rather than just your own social contacts, and which let you adopt a second identity to enable you to say things you daren’t with your first. The success of Twitter, in particular, shows the power of this freedom – many people I know joined Twitter with a username based on their real name, before adopting a name that’s less identifying to free them to be silly or profane.

Millions of people have a non-identifying username which unites their online publishing activity on a host of services: Tumblr, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, as well as endless comment forums. Each of these sites has its own flourishing communities.

But here’s the thing. Facebook is so popular because it enables you to see what your friends are up to, across all different media, in one place. That’s why Facebook, while technically inferior to Flickr as a photo-sharing site, is now the biggest photo-sharing site in the world – it’s convenient to share photos with the network you’ve already built.

But in the wider world of Web 2.0 services, there’s no united network. My Flickr contacts can see my photos, but not my tweets; my blog subscribers can’t see my YouTube uploads. Each service provides tools for finding your connections on other services, but it’s laborious – and you still have to visit each separate site to see what your contacts are up to. I check Facebook every morning, and frequently again later in the day. It takes a few minutes.

If I checked Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Flickr and Vimeo every morning to see what all those I follow were up to, it’d take an hour or more.

What’s needed is a portal which lets us conveniently and easily see what all those we follow are up to across the different web publishing services: to add social networking to social publishing. And it’s needed for more than just convenience. As Facebook’s power grows, there’s an increasing danger that the convenience if offers will lead people to abandon other services and simply share through Facebook. Already I find myself clicking the ‘Like’ button where before I would have ‘Dugg’ a web page, or shared it on Twitter, because it’s so damn easy. If young people joining the internet get in the habit of doing everything through Facebook, the whole idea of distributed Web 2.0 services – and of the freedom to adopt a second persona online – could wither on the vine.

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