Conflicting ideas on the future of social networking

Mark Suster made some interesting predictions on the future of social networking at the Caltech/MIT Enterprise Forum, not all of which I agree with.

I’ve summarised some of his thoughts, and added my own predictions at the end of this blog.

1. “I don’t believe users or society as a whole will accept a single company (Facebook) “locking in” our vital information”. History shows that people “accept” things until there is a better alternative. Facebook certainly has weaknesses, and if better alternatives come along that compensate for the network effect from which Facebook benefits, then people will begin using the alternative(s). But I don’t think it’s a question of people rising up in arms over FB “locking in our vital information”. Eventually, as Mark demonstrated later on in this talk, every leader is overturned – General Motors, IBM, Microsoft, AOL.

2. “We will form around true social networks – Quora, Stocktwits”. Mark is absolutely right – “the Facebook problem” is that they are trying to lump us into one big social network. Many of us don’t want to mix our public network and our private network, and Facebook forces this mixture. Which means it doesn’t work well for either purpose. I don’t share a lot of personal interests on FB because it’s not relevant to my business world, and by the same token I don’t want to bore my friends with business topics. That’s why a lot of business networking has moved to Twitter. I think this is Facebook’s Achilles heel.

3. “Privacy issues will continue to cause problems –Diaspora”. Yes, privacy concerns will continue, but I don’t think this is why people will abandon Facebook. Every network is suffering from these problems.

4. “Social networking will become pervasive – Facebook Connect meets Pandora, NYTimes”. This was the original promise of social computing – You would be able to take advantage of only the appropriate social subgroup to get answers to questions, suggestions, and trade information. If I wanted a restaurant recommendation, I wouldn’t need to go to Zagat’s which accepts anyone’s ratings, but I could look only at the recommendations of other foodies (Yelp is getting closer to this promise, but it takes a lot of work to figure out whose recommendations to trust.) We’re still some way away from this holy grail, but it’s good to see progress with apps like Pandora. Mark later talks about Klout, a service that tracks the influence of individuals in social networks. It can be imported into other products (e.g. StockTwits) where you really want to know more about the person giving you advice. If it works, this is a huge step toward that holy grail.

My predictions on the future of social networking from the consumer point of view, based on Cheskin Added Value’s research in this area:

Multiple linked social networks: We will be able to customise our social networks for different purposes, and the one-size-fits-all Facebook-type network will decline. We’ll have networks of college friends, real personal friends, personal acquaintances, business contacts, fellow book lovers, Zynga game players, neighbors, foodies, etc. And we won’t have to log into multiple different networks with different rules to make this possible.

Track responses across social networks: We’ll be able to easily track and find posts across different networks and email services. Right now, I communicate with people on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, my Android phone texts, work email, and personal email. It’s hard to remember which service I need to respond to in order to get back to someone.

Reduction of information overload: It will be easier to get relevant articles, blogs, and posts networked to us. It’s more than recommendations from our social graph, because right now that social graph is way too broad. I don’t want to read about desalinization plants, just because a friend is into that topic. Even on Twitter, it’s hard to reduce the amount of input to something I can keep up with. I have to cut off whole people, rather than narrow the topics I want to hear about. Again, this is the holy grail of social networking – to be able to mine our contacts and interests to get the information we want easily. Social networking should reduce information overload, not add to it. The promise of the future is a much improved Stumbleupon.

Ability to have real conversations: We’ll have networks, especially business-related, that have vibrant conversations, the way FriendFeed used to. People commonly have this on Facebook about personal interests, but I haven’t found anything that works well for business, perhaps excepting those uber-connected folks who can get responses quickly. Twitter’s 140 character limit doesn’t work very well for real conversations.

Social networking sites will reshape the future of search: With Facebook potentially rising to challenge the dominance of Google’s users and traffic, and/or integrating to provide greater synergistic value. Social search will become a core part of search, as the social web expands in volume and value.



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