Fragmentation II

To continue talking about fragmentation, I feel like there’s an inherent problem with online social networking. It’s all fine so long as you stick with a single site for social networking, but otherwise it gets messy. You like Facebook, all your friends are on Facebook, and you never leave Facebook? Then everything is peachy-keen.

What happens when some of your friends are on Twitter and you’re using LinkedIn for your professional contacts? Well now you have a couple more profiles to manage, a couple more places to check for messages, and a couple more places to post your status.

Now your contacts on these sites probably overlap a little; some of your Facebook friends are also LinkedIn contacts. So now you want to send them a message. Do you send it through normal email, or through one of these sites? If you send it through one of these sites, which one?

Or your information changes and you want to post an update to your profile. Now you have multiple profiles in multiple places to update. Your probably also have an old Friendster profile that’s way out of date because you can’t even remember the login information. Does that matter? Is anyone still on Friendster, and do they care that your information is old? I don’t know. It’s probably not a big deal, but we certainly haven’t been forward-thinking in coming up with these things.

If you ask me, there needs to be an open standard for online profiles that enable connections across sites. I should be able to use Facebook if I want, and my friend should be able to use LinkedIn, and we should still be able to befriend each other and see each other’s status updates. Everyone should only need a single online profile, and that profile should have standard machine-readable parts.

I should be able to write a script that can crawl my friends’ profiles, collect all of their blog addresses, and set up a consolidated RSS newsfeed of all of their blog posts. I should be able to set my desktop address book application to crawl my online profile, go through all my friends’ profiles, and populate my address book with the most recent profile picture and contact information available. When I add a contact to my address book, it should be able to ask me whether I want to add them as a friend and automatically put in the friend request regardless of what network they’re on.

Of course, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, and not because of technological hurdles. The bigger problem is that Facebook has no incentive to open up. They need you try to force you to use their service in order to interact with their membership, and they need you to visit their site in order to use their services. The whole point is ad revenue.

I will admit that there’s one sense in which the fragmentation is advantageous: keeping your social networks separate. I’d like to be able to manage my profile in one place, but I don’t want my boss seeing the same information that my old college friends see, and I might not even want all of my college friends to see the same information. This presents some problems, and keeping different profiles could be helpful. However, having multiple social networking sites don’t actually help. Even if you try to make LinkedIn professional and Facebook personal, there’s nothing to keep your professional contacts from trying to befriend you on Facebook.

I think the best long-term solution has to be enabling people to make and maintain a single profile in one place, but having more fined grained control over which information gets displayed to whom. You should be able to put both your work email address and personal email address into the same profile, but maybe only show the work address to work contacts and personal address to personal contacts. Ideally, being able to create different profiles would also provide an opportunity for some plausible deniability: you could befriend someone and allow them to only see a small subset of your profile, but they wouldn’t need to know how much of your profile they were seeing. You could befriend your boss and parents while being careful to ensure that they can only see information on your profile that shows you to be a fine, upstanding citizen. Alternatively, you could post about your love for My Little Pony without sharing that information with your tough-guy friends. Somehow, it needs to emulate how we deal with real people in real life– we show different facades under different circumstances.

I don’t think those sorts of controls would be too difficult to develop technologically. The real problem would be making the controls simple and fool-proof. The settings would need to be clear enough that users would have no trouble understanding who would be able to see the information, simple enough that a user would have no trouble achieving the results they want, and convenient enough that it wouldn’t harm the user’s experience of the site. Finally, the privacy controls would need to be refined in such a way that mistakes were unlikely– there’s no point in developing all these fancy privacy settings only to accidentally post information about your sex life where your parents can read it.

Well I think that’s all for now. Stay tuned for part 3.