Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Social Networking’s Club Rules

The early social network Six Degrees might not have outlived the dot-com era, but it lasted long enough to demonstrate that everyone is connected to everyone else. This is an important consideration that has been neglected in the design of most online social networks since.

A social network that excludes or denigrates categories of people based on arbitrary rules is a broken social network. Anyone who goes in and takes a look around will see that many of the key people are missing. Indeed, one of the weird things about the major social networks at this stage is that leaders of every kind are starkly underrepresented. Today is a Tuesday, a record release day in the United States, and you’ll find discussions of today’s new records on social networking sites, but the musicians themselves are, for the most part, not part of the discussion. Entertainers, executives, writers, designers, athletes, coaches, teachers, and others who are the focus of attention in much of the real world are pushed to the background on social networking sites, or are not there at all.

And it is not just a lack of leaders. Social networking sites have arbitrary rules that exclude people, including rules about the names people can have. Users whose first names happen to be the English spellings of Greek letters are routinely banned from Facebook. Others have been barred from joining because their names are the same as the names of celebrities. Supposedly this is meant to prevent Facebook users from signing up using aliases, yet these users generally find that they can keep a Facebook account only if they sign up with a name other than their own. Of course, not being able to use your own name makes social networking a bizarre challenge. Google+, for all its improvements in enabling collaboration, repeats this same mistake. Of course, it makes it hard to use Google+ as the platform for a collaborative effort if some of the members of your working group are prevented from signing up.

There are, of course, other issues with names. Many celebrities, writers, and stage performers work under commercial names so that they can have private lives. And they are not the only ones who want to have private lives. Lots of people are dating someone who not all their friends would approve of, or work for a company that some of their friends are boycotting. Facebook has said that private lives are a thing of the past, and Google has suggested that people abandon their private lives, as if personal activities were all drug addictions, religious cults, and seamy affairs. But keeping the different areas of your life from colliding is a not merely a concern for people who have crimes or sins to cover up. Microsoft executives can’t get caught carrying an iPhone; the agent representing the Yes/Styx tour has to assume a lower profile if he wants to attend the Def Leppard/Heart show; a person studying to learn a new skill area in order to change jobs can’t have that course of study put together with their current employment. In real lives, things often clash with each other. In short, life is too complicated to squeeze into an online identity that is all in one place, formless and dimensionless. Yet that is what social networks so far force you to do.

Google+ was thought to improve on this with its use of circles, yet so far, the circles seem to only add to the confusion. Real-life social circles form autonomously and change continuously. Google+ social circles, by comparison, exist only in your imagination and require hours of online maintenance. With the inevitable confusion surrounding circles, the potential for faux pas in Google+ are higher than in any previous social setting, and this may prove to be Google+’s downfall. If you let the cat out of the bag on Google+, the only way to slink away in shame may be to withdraw from the network entirely, at least for a period of time. We’ve seen this kind of thing happen often enough on Facebook, which doesn’t have the same potential for confusion. It is one of a series of hurdles preventing Facebook from reaching critical mass, the point at which the people already in the network provide reason enough to join. Google+, in its early form, can be expected to have higher turnover than Facebook, so it may have even more difficulty approaching critical mass.

Which brings us back around to the ultimate problem with social networks. With most of the important people excluded, marginalized, or pushed to the background, a social networking site can’t reflect the social network of the real world. It is more of a club than a network, where membership comes first, and who you know is a detail. Of course, Facebook has always presented itself this way — go to the web site, and all you find is a demand that you sign up before you can get in. Needless to say, no real-world social network works that way — that is the way a private club works.

For all the talk about the conspiracies that take place in clubs, clubs have never become very important, because the focus is always on what is going on outside the doors. The social marketing people know all about this, of course. The keys to success in social marketing are names and links — they serve as road maps to the world outside. But really, almost everyone in social networking sites today is has this same outward focus. After all, the real world outside the doors is still where the important people are and where the important action takes place.