Over the last 30 years or so we’ve seen a tremendous increase in electronic communication by computer networking. Thirty years ago I mainly communicated with distant friends and family by snail mail. Now I mainly use email, if I have their email address. And there are social networking web sites like Facebook and Twitter where you can find friends and family even if you’ve lost touch with them.
But though the internet in general, and social networking sites in particular, make communication easier, the owners of the sites seem to go to great lengths to place obstacles in the way, so that the potential of the internet for communication is never fully realised. One of the most notorious examples was when Facebook, without telling its users, changed every user’s email address in its directory to a Facebook address, and hid mail sent to that address in a place where no one could find it.
I’d like to make some suggestions for improving the utility of social networking to the users. They probably won’t be tried, because there is a huge clash of interests, so Facebook is perpetually fighting its users in order to manipulate them and sell them, offering them the minimum of what they want in order to keep stringing them along.
Other social networking sites have been less successful at this. They start offering something that people find useful, and gain a lot of users. They then sell the site to a big company that announces that they are going to improve the site, and remove the very thing that attracted users in the first place. Yahoo! was notorious for buying up such sites and killing them — for example Geocities, BlogLog and WebRing.
When BlogLog went, there was another similar site called BlogCatalog, but they tried making “improvements” that crippled the main thing that attracted users.
Yet another was Technorati, which was a very useful tool for finding blog posts on similar subjects by means of tags. It also showed a list of trending topics in blog posts, some of which I did not understand at all, but curiosity made me investigate some of them, and so I leant something about popular culture, and the meaning of words like Beyonce, Pokemon and Paris Hilton (no, not the hotel, the daughter of its owner). And one of the things that trended was Twitter. I didn’t see much point in Twitter at first, but when Technorati abandoned its main function, Twitter became a less satisfactory substitute.
Whenever I link to a new blog from one of my WordPress blogs, there is a kind of social networking questionnaire. It’s an idea that’s been around for a long time, and I’ve filled in the information in the hope that someone will find a use for it one day. It’s called XFN, or the XHTML friends network, and you can read more about it here.
The rationale behind XFN’s categories of relationship is given here. While I don’t agree with all their decisions and categories, I think that it is a pretty good starting point, and that social networking sites like Facebook would be immensely improved if they instituted something like that.
The only thing I would add for a site like Facebook would be the time dimension — the “met” category can mean last week or 40 years ago. I find Facebook most useful for contacting old friends and far-away friends.
But the use of categories like the XFN ones could enable Facebook to improve their algorithms of what they show to users. At the moment Facebook shows me lots of stuff from some people in the “contact” category, people I have never met.
Allowing users to categorise posts would also help. Some categories might be family news, general news, professional news, humour, trivia, etc. And possibly an importance rating — I don’t want to learn of a death in the family after the funeral has taken place (as happened in a couple of cases recently), while a new bird seen in the garden might be of less importance.
Does anyone else think any of this would be useful if implemented by Facebook or some other social networking sites?