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December 06, 2005

Why social/networking sites will never really work

I find myself increasingly straying from my brief to write about developing software. Oh well, what can you do?

One issue that I've found myself discussing with several smart people of late is social software/networking sites. Things like Friendster, Orkut, and latterly, Myspace (recently purchased by New Limited for nearly $600 Million). Several such networks have flourished and then seemingly died off over the last 3 or 4 years, which lead me to consider whether there is actually any viability to such social software.

I actually I'll come right out and so I don't think there is. I'll predict any attempt to develop a site whose motivation is to help people create relationships will fail. Why?

Think about your friends. How do you know them? Why are they your friends? By and large, we generally think that our friends are our friends' friends. And while that may often be the case, is that actually why they are our friends? Or is that simply the mechanism by which we came to know these people? Our friends afterall, most likely have many friends who are not our friends.

Our friendships are based on shared tastes, values and interests. And while there is probably a better than random chance that our friends' friends to some extent share these, there are many many people in our communities, and beyond, who more closely share these relationship drivers. Those of us who have lived in a country other than that in which we were born, or travelled extensively will very likely have very close relationships with people who are very distantly if not completely removed from our social circles. Who have nothing to do with our friends.

But what has all this to do with social software and its potential for success or otherwise? Social software is by and large designed to replicate the friend of a friend mechanism, which just happens to be the mechanism which works best in the "real world". But does it work best in the virtual world? If anything it limits our capacity to meet those who share our interests, values and tastes, the things which actually cement relationships. Because with sites like Orkut, we only get to meet people who are friends of friends, regardless of whether they might be good candidates for friendship.

But what about myspace? You can make anyone your friend, as long as they'll have you. They don't have to be a friend of a friend to be my friend.
Now, when was the last time someone asked you to be their friend, or "we are friends, right?" in the "real world". We know who our friends are, we are very good at discerning relationships. As much as anything because genuine relationships take work. Time to talk, email, meet. Relationships are organic, self correcting, complex things. So while the first generation of explicitly social software, like Orkut, were overly limiting by replicating the real world mechanism of friend of a friend relationship building, the myspace generation is too promiscuous - there is no guarantee your myspace "friend" is a friend at all.

But, social software which actually works exists already - it just doesn't look explicitly like social software, and I'd be interested to know whether the developers ever thought of it as such. What is it? Flickr.

Where services like Photobucket are just ways to upload/manage/share/backup photos, Flickr's differentiating factor is "contacts", comments, groups - its tools for building relationships which are much more like those in the real world - complex, nuanced, based on active shared interests (not much more passive things like "bands I like") - firstly photography, then areas of active interest (the things you photograph). It's much harder to fake, and much more work to build a relationship than simply "click here to add this person as a friend".
Lastly, while Orkut, Friendster, and myspace are all essentially self contained universes, Flickr lets the real world in. In fact with their requirement that you only upload photos, they insist that the primary motivation and currency of use are artefacts from reality.

For tens of thousands of years, our survival has depended on close relationships which are reciprocal, rich and lasting, and our ability to form and maintain them. We have got very very good at this. Because of the complexity of forming, maintaining and evolving relationships, I doubt that software which attempts to explicitly provide mechanisms for forming and maintaining relationships will ever survive their brief "bubble" stage, where virally they explode as people collect friends, much like baseball cards, only to tire and move on.

But the urge to form lasting complex relationships is so profoundly human that I suspect like Flickr, successful online services will increasingly become places where communities form and grow.

So if you are building an online app - think about where the community is. Oh, and Mr Murdoch, I think you blew $580 Million bucks

December 6, 2005 | Permalink


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Your probably right, and i'm not the only one who thinks so. Some people call the active shared interests object centered sociality. Read this for a similar view: http://www.zengestrom.com/blog/2005/04/why_some_social.html

Posted by: Tijs | Dec 7, 2005 10:33:31 AM


thanks, great link.

I actually was going to critique FOAF in this context, but edited it out, as overly complicating.

Fascinating to see what social theory has to say about it,


Posted by: john Allsopp | Dec 7, 2005 10:41:48 AM

If social software binds enough attention metadata with opinions & preferences for each user, other users will know them completely, and thus never have a need to converse. Ergo, when the grail of social software is attained, it will lead to the death of online friendships.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 7, 2005 2:53:00 PM

the object in mySpace is music...so the jury is out on whether murdoch loses with mySpace. Did you see that he just tacked on a Craigslist service? It's already gaining traction...

Posted by: james | Dec 7, 2005 7:58:42 PM

the object in mySpace is music...so the jury is out on whether murdoch loses with mySpace. Did you see that he just tacked on a Craigslist service? It's already gaining traction...

Posted by: james | Dec 7, 2005 7:59:04 PM

I would of thought that showing strangers the contents of your photo albums is one of the best ways of driving them away ("...Here's the Spanish Inquisition at the side of the house...").
Anyway, the idea of using web sites to make friends. How sad. Get out more boys and girls.
(BTW If you first contact someone through the web in the normal course who subsequently becomes your friend, that's fine.)

Posted by: Mike WS | Dec 8, 2005 4:33:30 AM

James: that's the thing. With as many users as MySpace has you could extend the functionality with virtually everything and it would be an instant success. Add photo sharing? Boom, you have a bigger photosharing community than flickr. Add what webservice x does? boom... rinse. repeat.

Posted by: Tijs | Dec 10, 2005 9:20:10 AM


why is real out better than virtual out?

Or more importantly, isn't it a false dichotomy.

Many of my "real" relationships started online, and my online relationships are usually an extension of my real ones.


Posted by: john Allsopp | Dec 10, 2005 9:36:08 AM


the question is, would adding photo sharing to myspace work? That is, are communities generated by their practices, or do they facilitate those practices? I think the former, though once established, a community and its practices are self perpetuating.


Posted by: john Allsopp | Dec 10, 2005 9:38:12 AM

I'm surprised that you think there is more of a real friendship formed by sharing photos as opposed to other social network mediums. I think you have picked photography as your most dear medium and discounted or ignored things like sharing song writing, film, art, muscic, computers and ideas (to name only some)as passions that people actively connect over.

I wasn't open to the idea of making friends on the internet until recently when I joined myspace and at first I thought it was silly. I couldn't see the value in it (i mean are you really gonna meet there people and have them as real friends anyway?), but then I realised not to take it as tho they are all going to be REAL friends in a very DEEP sense. I picture my expereince on there as being like a tumbleweed in the desert, picking up little tidbits, ideas and perspectives as I brushed past these online aquaintances.

tho I wont deny that people use these social mediums without the object centred socialty in mind. Just a bit of entertainment and flexing of their ego muscles. Maybe they view their egos as something that other people will have a similar interest in? Maybe they percieve it as an object?

Woah maybe I took the philosophical bit kinda too far. I like to flex the analytical muscle from time to time.

Some questions:

How many of the photos on flickr really theirs any way? Are self portraits on teens in their bedrooms on myspace of lesser status than than photos of landscapes, still lifes or babies on flicker?

How much of any online posting is real or true? There is no guarantees even in real life about truth or reality.

Physicality - How much of you real life friends smell touch sound looks and body chemistry has an effect on how genuine the friendship? Subconcious stimulants like pheremones have such a huge impact on sexual attraction so do they affect friendships?

Posted by: Aims | Feb 16, 2006 10:18:17 PM

ps. its amazing the number of companies that think its o.k to take images from flickr and use them for advertising!

Public is the new Private!

Posted by: Aimee | Feb 16, 2006 10:35:39 PM

Myspace is for kids really there are is one that stands out from the rest of the social networking sites and thats friendwise.com i haven't found a better online community then them people are super nice and very active as they get points for there activity and has more features like take and make polls and quizzes people actually answer everyones blogs just hope it stays better then myspace.

Posted by: social networking | Mar 22, 2006 8:47:34 AM

Oops. Oh well, nobody had heard of Facebook in 2005 I guess. Bad luck my friend. ;)

Posted by: Monevator | Mar 8, 2008 9:46:45 PM

That is right Aims.
I think that song writing tips online for example can form a real friendship
Not photos.

Posted by: Steven Davies | Apr 23, 2008 4:18:09 AM

So nice to look back on blogs and see who was right and who wasn't. I would argue that it doesn't bring kids together like an organic chemistry class might =) but social networking sites still work

Posted by: Organic Chemistry | May 17, 2008 9:45:37 PM

I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the entire web 2.0 thing. Can I expand on social networking services a little?

A social network service uses software to build online social networks for communities of people who share interests and activities or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others.

Most services are primarily web-based and provide a collection of various ways for users to interact, such as chat, messaging, email, video, voice chat, file sharing, blogging, discussion groups, and so on. Social networking has revolutionized the way we communicate and share information with one another in today's society. Various social networking websites are being used by millions of people everyday on a regular basis and it now seems that social networking is a part of everyday life. The main types of social networking services are those which contain directories of some categories (such as former classmates), means to connect with friends (usually with self-description pages), and recommender systems linked to trust. Popular methods now combine many of these, with MySpace and Facebook being the most widely used in North America; Bebo, MySpace, Skyrock Blog, Facebook and Hi5 in parts of Europe; Orkut and Hi5 in South America and Central America; and Friendster, Orkut, CyWorld and Mixi in Asia and the Pacific Islands.

There have been some attempts to standardize these services to avoid the need to duplicate entries of friends and interests (see the FOAF standard and the Open Source Initiative), but this has led to some concerns about privacy.

Posted by: Charles | Jun 5, 2008 3:18:04 AM

Orkut is becoming more popular day by day. It's having all that a social network need to make it big. Gradually it's adding add ons, making navigation more user friendly, easy on eye look and a loads of other features.

Now people can also post HTML scraps, i.e graphics, music scraps in their friends profiles. Recently it started a theme feature, which gives users a space to go for their choices.

many coders have developed some scripts/codes that can be used to increase your scrap count in minutes. So, it's becoming more popular now-a-days.

Orkut also allow proxies to log on. Many schools and offices blocked Orkut. So, using Orkut proxies, u can get using Orkut.

Lastly, in comparasion to other social netwoks like, Facebook, Hi5, Tagged, Orkut is doing far better. may be because this is a Google product. But look at it's alexa rank. It's becoming popular day by day and it will also grow like this.

just my 2 cents ;)

Posted by: Orkut Guide | Tips and Tricks | Scripts | Themes | Music Scraps | Graphics | Proxy | Flodder | Jul 3, 2008 1:47:36 AM

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