Wednesday, May 21, 2003

NetWork V

Social networking software and Web services keep popping up like dandelions! Two new services take some of the best and worst features of existing tools such as Friendster, Ryze, Ecademy, and LinkedIn, indicating the range of approaches that can be taken to this sort of service -- and that the need for a unified way to bridge the disparate systems is increasingly important.

Huminity is a free software program for the PC that mimics TheBrain. Instead of using the tool's tree-structured interactive maps to organize files and documents, Huminity can be used to track connections between people in your social and professional networks. Based on the work of John Nash, it appears that you can enter your existing "contact tree" and connect it with a global database of other people's contacts and connections. The possibilities of the mutual introductions and connection request flow that are available in LinkedIn are interesting -- especially if this evolves to the point where it's easy to connect individual contact management databases in a distributed way. If people can network their iTunes libraries, why isn't Now Contact able to do the same thing?

Then there's Buddy Network, which I just signed up for. Somewhat like Friendster with a light Ecademy-like member news and blog aspect, I'm not totally sure whether another service like this is entirely necessary. Outside of wanting to be as widely accessible and active as possible, until I know more about who comprises the membership base -- and how they use the system -- I think I'll stick with Friendster and Ryze as my primary social network services.

Now, how can we better bridge these wide-ranging systems? Duncan Work has been working on a software tool called NetDeva for several years now, and it seems like the start of a fix. Basically, NetDeva is a near-open source profile management tool similar to Microsoft Passport (only more grassroots and personal) that can be used to maintain one profile for a multitude of online communities and -- I'm guessing -- social networking services. You control how much information is made available to other people based on how closely connected they are to you -- i.e. fewer degrees of separation can bring more personal information. Think about LinkedIn's request referral process, only automated based on your settings.

As more of these services develop, it'll become increasingly important to bridge them. At the same time, it'd be interesting to study how much their memberships overlap. Are the same people all working the different systems? Are certain systems attracting different kinds of people? How do the systems' designs affect how people use the systems? At some point, this disperse, disconnected approach to social networking software -- online and offline -- will make less and less sense. Rather than move toward one meta social network service, let's start to find ways to connect what exists -- and better differentiate their memberships and modes and motivations of interaction.

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