Why Social Networks Aren’t Yet

I’ve been thinking about online social networks more than normal for the last few weeks. The truth is that I don’t do a lot on most general social networks right now. I generally read Facebook about once a day, but post maybe once a month. I read Twitter a few times a day, but post maybe once a week. Other social networks such as LinkedIn and Google+ to more specialized ones such as Instagram I visit irregularly at best.

In fact the social network I visit and use the most often is Model Mayhem, a site devoted to connecting people in photography. I think the reason I go there more often, other than the site is how I find most people I work with, is the focus of the site on a single set of relationships. I know intuitively how to use it and work with it. I go there for a purpose, interact as needed, and leave.

On LinkedIn a couple weeks ago I had a connection request from a model that I’ve worked with a couple times in photo projects. After accepting I noticed that my connections on LinkedIn consist of a mix of friends, photographic collaborators like her, vendors I’ve worked with on projects, and co-workers. They are a diverse group. The same thing is the case with Facebook adding friends and people I went to high school with to the previous list.

I think that’s the biggest problem with most social network sites. They really do a poor job of mapping to my real social network. In the last couple months I’ve served in the role of friend, lover, co-worker, manager, employee, consultant, photographer, and student along with others I’m sure I’m forgetting at different times. None of the sites really deal with these varied roles. The intricate multitude of human interactions do not easily map to simple terms like friend or follower or connection. This makes the interactions feel a bit more difficult than they should be. Most of my photography connections don’t really care that I’m with friends at a restaurant, but those that are also friends might want to join us. My co-workers probably wouldn’t care that I’d had a model cancel a shoot and need a replacement, but those photography connections would if available. Then there are the people whose thoughts I want to know either because they entertain or enlighten, but I have no interest in what they’re having for dinner tonight.

To me no site handles this well. I maintain two twitter accounts, one for “me” that covers most of my roles and a second that covers the photographer role. As mentioned my Facebook and LinkedIn accounts are a mix of people I connect with in these diverse roles. I think one reason I post to these two less is that I’m often not sure if I want to “bother” all of these people with messages meant for only a subset of them.

In addition my roles overlap and shift even during the course of a day and more so over weeks and months. Someone I meet for a photo shoot last year is a friend today. A woman I met late this summer moved from friend to lover, back to friend, and then out of my life over a few months. The complexities of these relationships do not match well to simple terms like friend or follower on Facebook or Twitter. The concept of Circles on Google+ perhaps comes closer to acknowledging these differences but still feels a bit off. My true social network lies in none of these sites. It occurs face to face, in phone calls, text messages, and emails. Those are the ones that feel right, natural, and simple.

I think we’re at the point with social networks that we were in Internet search before Google arrived. The best and most popular search site then was AltaVista. Everyone used it and it provided the best results. We liked it because while it was inconsistent and buggy it did a job we wanted by helping us find what we wanted on the Internet most of the time. Sure you might not get the best result, but you got a good result more often than not. Suddenly Google arrived and you started getting the best results almost all the time and Altavista faded.

Right now I think Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and the others are like those search engines before Google. They solve a real need we have, the basic human urge to connect and interact with others. Our desire to feel part of a group and Right now Facebook probably does it the best and is to social what Altavista was to search. Something is off though. In search the big idea was that the number of other sites that linked to a site told you something about how good a site was. I think in social it will be some way to almost transparently deal with the complexity of real relationships. I don’t know who will do it or how they will do it.  I think whoever does, whether an existing or new site, will finally be the social network I really use.

Oh, and happy Thanksgiving to all.