Social networking sites not as social as they need to be

How many social networks do you belong to? How many social network sites do you really need? If you’re like me, you really only need one—as long as it has everything you want. More importantly, how many times do you want to have to go through the registration process and create a new profile?

The first social network I joined was Sixdegrees.com (no relation to the site currently at that address). It was a cool way to link together your friends and relatives. Unfortunately, it was a little ahead of its time and went out of business.

After that, I joined Classmates.com. It was, and probably is still, the biggest and best alumni-oriented site on the Net (not that anyone notified me of our last reunion, which I thus missed). Originally, I was a paid member… for years actually. Being a paid member was, after all, the only way to contact other alumni. Eventually I stopped paying, because I no longer saw the value in it.

A good friend suggested I join Friendster.com. I did, and it reminded me a lot of good old Sixdegrees. I ended up with two profiles there, and I really want to kill one of them off, but that means losing my friends linked to that account. This is a common problem people face when they want/need/are forced to change or use a different account. Some people like wearing different virtual masks, but I like simplicity. Just let me consolidate my accounts.

Yahoo is a social network of sorts that I joined a long time ago. It taught me a lot of things, including to be careful to whom you share your instant messaging ID. Again, I ended up with two accounts, but finally decided to kill them both off when my preferred ID became available.

MySpace became a strong favorite for quite a while. Despite poor press, it offered a lot of what I expect in a social networking site. First, it has a large user base. Nearly everybody I know has an account, even if it is only to monitor their children’s MySpace usage. MySpace has engaging interactive tidbits. Sure, YouTube’s video service is better, and Classmates’ alumni directory is vastly more complete, but MySpace figured out that if you put all these separate elements together, making it easy and very customizable, people are going to love it.

Other sites do cool things that MySpace doesn’t. Care2.com is socially and environmentally responsible. Plaxo ties in with Microsoft Outlook. Flixster.com has a really cool movie rating system. You get the idea.

However, all these sites suffer from one big, fat, annoying, pain in the backside problem… every one of them has a separate registration and profile you have to complete. They all ask essentially the same questions (fave movie, music, goals, etc.). After the third time, you just want to scream, “go read my profile on MySpace already!” Even the various Wikimedia sites (Wikipedia, Wiktionary, etc.) do not share profile or logon information.

Forget about single sign-on for network passwords. The technology I want to see is “single profile” for social networking.

Think it can’t be done? Well, they did it with instant messaging (Jabber). For message forums, a single account sign-on technology shares information between Drupal servers. With XML and Web services, all of this should be easy. So why isn’t anyone doing it?

Are all the little fiefdoms afraid that sharing information that way will result in their demise? If they don’t do it soon, they will probably die off anyway.

Most social networks seem to be only one or two trick shows. When a big player adds the little company’s trick, the little guy loses because it’s no longer unique.

The solution, I think, is to expand the little networks into distributed social networks.

A common registration and profile system would exist in each system. When you login to a new site with an account from a participating site, your information is automagically visible on the new system. Whether your full profile is copied to the new system or is dynamically pointed to your “home” system is up to the user and would depend, at least in part, on the data fields the new system uses. Each method has its own advantage. A copy will survive if the home system goes offline, but dynamic information can be kept up to date more easily. Maybe an RSS-type feed could keep the various servers in synch with user updates.

Duplicate usernames really aren’t much of an issue. Jabber and Drupal prove that point. You just include your home system’s name after your username. Merging accounts should be pretty straight-forward, too. Just identify your local site’s username and your home site’s username, and then tell it to link the accounts. Corresponding fields will be displayed side-by-side, and the users can select which data they would prefer to appear on the local system. Updating home server information remotely is a security risk, but local systems should be able to display custom information instead of remote information whenever the user desires to do that.

The real power comes as you join more network sites. Each system you join extends and expands your profile. Maybe you start out with a MySpace account. You include your basic school history from their list. Later, you join Classmates, and you really beef up your profile with all your past schools and jobs. That information links back to your MySpace profile, and all your MySpace information about favorite bands and friends is visible on Classmates. Join Flixster, and your movie preferences get added to the mix. Join Care2, and now your friends can see how environmentally conscious you are. Popular services will start show up everywhere, yet they won’t “steal” users from other networks, because they are all integrated.

There are, of course, some privacy concerns. After all, we’re talking about building massively detailed profiles about people. Could the government or an employer use this information against you? Of course! They can do so now, though they have to search multiple sites now instead of viewing one consolidated profile. The thing is, most people join these social networks to see, be seen, and share their information. But few want to have to type, type, and retype that information. It kind of defeats the purpose and certainly kills the fun.

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