In the end, it was Scrabble that did it, or rather, the Scrabulous Facebook application. Oh, don’t bother clicking on the link unless you are logged into Facebook: non-Facebook users won’t get anywhere. This is precisely why it took me so long after all, why I was less than enchanted by open-to-all apps and services behind not-open-to-all URLs. That, and the fact that I come from a non-facebook-making culture, and am well beyond college age: “Facebook” is not a brand name likely to seduce me into joining.
Moreover, I already had all my “keeping in touch with my friends and acquaintances” needs covered several times over. I use over half a dozen email accounts, not counting inactive but still functional ones. Twitter, Flickr, last.fm, Librarything, LinkedIn, Upcoming, 6 to 8 different IM services, IRC and even good old usenet get regular attention from me. And I’m still trying to find a practical use for the otherwise lovely Pownce, and nearly forgot Tumblr, and a bunch of others.
But what changed was that my IRC friends were playing Scrabulous and talking about it; and then some of my work mates from the North American offices started badgering me because they couldn’t find me on Facebook. That’s when I caved.
It is immediately apparent why Facebook gets so much traction. Importing my various feeds from other social applications and the Yahoo! Pipe that aggregates my own stuff was easily done. My “friends” were already there, and as an added bonus, acquaintances from various online venues were now congregating in that one place (and are available for Scrabulous games). And then my friend Dave wrote his lovely Kanji learning Facebook application, and I was roped in for testing (and making a Kana database).
But Facebook is like a gigantic playroom. Things needed cutting down fast: I decided to end my careers as a werewolf, zombie, vampire and pirate, which led to a message from a co-worker that “since [I] left [his] werewolf army [his] life wasn’t the same” any more. Huh. (I’m still available for Scrabble games, of course.)
Looking at the bigger picture, though, the online landscape is now saturating with social software, and the battle for the top-spot in the “everything for everyone” category is not ultimately the most interesting issue. Many sites are targetting particular demographics, and as we move into and out of them, as our interests change and entire sections of the online population move around, we want to take our identities with us, without the hassle of creating everything from scratch. On the same note, in the applications I use for very specific purposes (Zoho, Slideshare, Upcoming …), the core functionality is not the sharing, so to make the social networking bit work, it must be easy and painless. These places may even be temporary (and some of the most useful ones are!), like the web sites around a particular conference, project, or larger social or political issue or event.
Social network portability is an unsolved problem, and so is profile data (and transactional data) privacy, tracking, and use.
Then there’s the question of where people will go. They’ll go where the fun and useful stuff is — useful to them, in their particular language, for their particular interests — and where those already are who are similar to them. With social sites springing up like mushrooms, the bar is being raised higher and higher. As Steve Eley said in one of his Escape Pod intros (love that podcast, by the way), “If we’re not hoping to work together, or sleep together, please don’t ask me to join stuff.”
In this landscape, the move Google made with their OpenSocial platform and API is a shrewed one. Now I’m not one for hype, and a lot of very smart people didn’t wait long to question the “open” in OpenSocial and point to the problems this new API does not solve. But it’s nonetheless a shift in the tectonic plates of the social web: the interesting stuff will be where the developers are, and the developers will be where the APIs are — and the less we are walled into individual gardens, the freer we will be to regroup and reconfigure and reinvent new uses of the social online space. And kudos to Google for not trying to create (or buy) the next mega-network, at least right now, but to do something more fundamental than that.
chris @ November 4, 2007