Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

What Comes After Web Sites and Online Social Networks?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Today we use the web in many ways. Traditional web sites — “places we go” on the web to do things — still exist. But increasingly, web based transactions also depend on the nature of our online relationships with other people.

Within “walled garden” systems such as Facebook, communication takes place among groups that may have been formed on an ad hoc basis to support a task or objective that will be gone tomorrow. The group may then go away. “Left behind” will be the relationships that were developed. Some of those relationships will grow, and some will wither.

The same is true of “open web” systems outside the likes of Facebook. Opportunities abound to link person to person relationships in some way to web sites. We see this with systems such as MyBlogLog, FriendFeed, Twitter, and now Google Friend Connect.

In some cases, the aggregation of related feeds or sites (as in the case of FriendFeed or MyBlogLog) can become another forum for comments, conversations, and information sharing in ways that can be related or unrelated to underlying blogs or web sites.

What is happening is that people can congregate online, conversations can take place, tags can be assigned to improve the targeting of information, and feeds and links are established that are unrelated to underlying pages, sites, blogs, or other networks.  The idea of the individual blog or website can become completely lost in this network of relationships, tags, feeds, and links, especially if the receiving end of a message is a small-screen smartphone with limited web access.

One of the things that is happening is that the definition of an “online social network” is becoming clouded. If it’s possible to enable one’s connections to navigate, congregate, and converse among sites equipped with Google Friend Connect iframes, for example, who needs “walled garden” systems such as Facebook or MySpace? And how does this impact the work being performed by in a quest to facilitate sharing of relationship based information across social networks?

I’m not as optimistic as some are about the ultimate success of establishing and adopting standards that can support privacy and data ownership rights, on the one hand, and on the other, easy exchange of relationship data on the other. There are too many competing economic, political, and social interests for this to happen, given the rapid technological change we are seeing in the web and the rapid evolution and adoption of new tools and techniques.

One of the biggest challenges to widespread adoption of standards that simultaneously can support the protection and sharing of relationship based information is not just the competing interests of different social networking vendors — many of which won’t exist in a few years anyway — but the weak and ad hoc nature of the many different social networks that currently exist. People who “join” a group may or may not share all the values of other members of the group. An ongoing example of this is the ongoing schism within networks such as Linkedin of “open networkers” seeking to maximize connections regardless of personal relationships, and Linkedin’s own recommendation that one should connect only with people you actually know.

Another example: I’m in the market for a new gas grill. In researching different grills I’ve discovered Weber Nation, which offers membership based forums where “… you can get honest feedback from other grilling fanatics on your latest marinade.” (“Hey, Björn, would you mind whipping up a batch of my new Hot As Lava recipe and let me know what you think when you use it on chicken drumsticks? I’m assuming you can get all the ingredients at your local grocery store in …”) In this case I have no interest in establishing new relationships based on my enthusiasm for grilling; I just need a new grill!

My point is that there are (potentially) many different types of online social networks, just as there are many different offline social networks. Our current ability to reflect the details and subtleties of offline onto online social networks is still primitive, considering how, in the real world, a glance or a gesture can irrevocably change the nature of how two people relate to each other. Imagining that we can capture these subtleties and then use them as the basis for a system that lets individuals “tune” who can see what about themselves is still years away.

Meanwhile, it’s inevitable that we’ll continue to see a “wild west show” of online networking opportunities via competing and rapidly evolving networks, standards, and systems. Opportunities to establish relationships via increasingly diverse, obscure, and even private characteristics will proliferate and will leave far behind established concepts such as web pages, web sites, and what we currently think of as online social networks.

Ultimately, what should drive the direction online social networks take is what we want to do with them. Are we looking to reinforce existing relationships? Do we want to establish intimacy with others like us? Do we want to meet new people with similar backgrounds? Do we want to poll like-minded people about important personal decisions? Or do we want to experiment and stretch our experience by establishing relationships with people we’d never meet up with any other way?

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald

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