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social networks: the glue for next-generation internet applications

Bill Burnham (who, among other things, is a managing partner at Softbank Venture Capital) has an interesting piece today on social networking applications. Quote:

Without some kind of application to force the regular use and maintenance of such networks, pure play online social networks are destined to become as stale and appealing as two week old bread.
Maybe. Interestingly I think that his mention of "pure play" has another dimension beyond what he means. I think that social networks as we know them today are, in part, in some weird way, piggybacking on the reality TV craze (or both are riding on an undercurrent of "reality fetish" that has emerged in our society). The idea of "play" (as in playfulness) is more powerful than it would seem, and it's definitely a factor. Partially, it's a game.

Or in other words, entertainment.

Now, this is not my cup of tea, so I naturally drift towards the first part of that quote, that without an application on which the network can sustain itself, it would eventually whither.

Social networks might be overhyped today, but no more so than the web browser was in 1995. Both, in my view, are critical pieces of infrastructure. Further, "social networks" have existed in limited forms online for some time now, so part of what's happening is the realization that the network of a person is crucial and can be nurtured to enhance the online experience in general and certain applications in particular.

What's powerful about this idea, to me, is not what they are today, but what this laser-like focus on their nature enables, just like one of the web browser's more important contributions was not the browser itself (ie., the component) but the notion that an application didn't necessarily belong either on the client or on the server, but could (and should when necessary) be split in two and thus improve the networked experience (ie., applications that embed browser or browser-like functionality). This has been the driving force behind my work in the last few months in fact: to allow people to leverage the qualities of personal networks and make them useful.

What are these qualities? In my opinion, above all, they can carry over a level of trust from the real world. This can then be applied to re-create real-world activities online, even if they still have a ways to go before they enable more than they restrict. Identity is enhanced. Interactions have less "friction" (friction is increased by anonymity, since we have to double-check the information we receive, etc).

There's another factor to take into consideration: that social networks, while infrastructure, are "soft", in the sense that they have no hard boundaries that define them (which lock out overlapping functionality). The web browser, for example, has hard boundaries, you don't generally use two of them, and in the end you don't care as long as it works. Social networks, however, are not only dynamic, as Bill notes, but also multiple and overlapping. Many people don't think twice about running two IM clients side by side, just as they don't think twice about having a group of friends from work and an entirely different group of friends from, say, college. Sometimes these groups intersect and/or interact, true, but they can be, and generally are, maintained and evolve in parallel.

Social networks are the glue for next-generation apps, and done properly they can bring together cyberspace and meatspace much closer than they are today. Explicit social network functionality might not become widespread by itself but for a few exceptions, but their principles and underlying notions will become part of the fabric of interconnected software, just as surely as the web browsing has become part of the fabric of applications today.

In other words, "pure play" social networks (in both senses) by themselves might not be sustainable beyond a few players [1], but their underlying principles will enable enable new types of applications and frameworks that can---and most certainly will be.

[1] If you're skeptical of even that, consider that Opera, with a product in an ultra-commoditized market, has grown to the point of filing for an IPO recently.

Categories: clevercactus
Posted by diego on March 4 2004 at 12:11 AM

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