Social Networking, Niches, and Facebook

This WSJ piece by Jessica Vascellaro is talking about a clear trend in social networking – noting that we’ve passed the “teen early adoption” phase and entered the professional phase where pretty much everybody will eventually participate in social networking of one form or another.

To filter the noise this social networking will increasingly take the form of highly targeted groups in thousands of interest niches. In fact this may transform socializing from the current scene to a world where most of your friendships are begun online and then extended in the real world.

Facebook’s future is tied up in how this shakes out.    If they succeed and become “the” general social network where you can branch out into specific niches even Google’s current level of success may pale in comparison.  However, unlike Robert Scoble, I’m not enamored enough with Facebook to think this will happen and these social aps will eclipse Google.   Rather I think the “killer application” has yet to be fully structured but will take the form of a robust, transportable, avatar laden, secure personal ID that you can modify easiy and then use to navigate the increasingly socialized internet.     As you visit websites this identity, all aspects of which remain under your own control, will allow other users to interact with you and branch off to your pictures, blog, or other items you choose.    Ultimately we’ll be able to interact online *far more effectively* than offline thanks to the reservoir of information (pictures, blogs, notes, comments, emails, video) many of us now pour online regularly.

One gets a glimpse of this by some of the early efforts like OpenID, bbAuth or Microsoft unified logins, or noting how Facebook cleverly allows the user to import blog posts to their facebook account.  Thus somebody looking at my Facebook profile also is “linked” to my blog posts without much effort.   Unfortunately, however, I have perhaps 100x the number of “active” real world contacts than I have “friends” in Facebook.    This may change, but I’m guessing that many people will never want to maintain much of an online identity, but almost everybody *would* want an application that would help them share and interact with others as they surf.

OpenID is the most promising approach theoretically, but it’s not taking off because there’s no big money to be made which I think has kept away the robust innovations needed for online identity solutions to really take off.

7 thoughts on “Social Networking, Niches, and Facebook

  1. Most of this Social Networking and “ImageControl” is beyond me, but I wonder if the control of one’s Online Identity will not eventually become similar to real life.

    Many people have a richly interesting combination of talents. A film star may have a background as a former chain gang member or a university professor may be a former circus performer. People can be jugglers, wine experts, auto mechanics, … and yet it will not be a part of their primary identity.

    I think a system whereby either multiple hats are used or a system where one hat has multiple ‘views’ that can be accessed will develop. In real life the movie star will only reveal to his friends that he has a criminal record and a computer programmer who is also a wine expert will not necessarily reveal that quite so promptly to the people he meets.

    I think it similar to people who wear a lapel tag to reveal that they are chess players. Most people who see the small chessboard on their lapel will be close to them already. Perhaps a stranger in a crowded subway train, perhaps a seat mate on an airplane. That later situation might be a long flight wherein they would each enjoy a chess game. The knowlege is broadcast but not too strongly. It travels only a short distance to a fairly select few… and the wearer has a good measure of control over it. A similar concept might be a tee shirt that is worn or a decal on a car. Its visible but its not blatantly billboarded all over town.

    This is what the online world needs… a way of making the information visible but not too widely visible beyond what the lapel-pin wearer wants.

  2. Interesting analogies FG … Online it’ll be a challenge to keep identities “under control” because online stuff has a history, unlike most offline communication. I think this history challenge will become very interesting in a few years as pictures and videos pour online and almost everybody will have a robust online “ID”, like it or not. For example most homes are now listed online, many phones, and many people’s pictures flow online without their knowledge (ie if I take a picture at a wedding and you happen to be in the pic, you may not even know your pic is online. Face recognition is improving fast and those tools may have somebody you know (but I don’t) view my pictures and then tag your face with your name. Suddenly, without you doing *anything*, your name and picture are online for all to see.

  3. Often even criminal convictions can be expunged but nothing is really ever ‘lost forever’. To continue with your example, it is indeed possible that the wedding-reception photo of which you speak might reveal I had been wearing a chess-player’s lapel pin at the time. Ofcourse this would hardly be disturbing to anyone. However, let us consider the wine-lover: does he want potential employers to know of it? Do programmers feel shame if they were once COBOL experts? Does a youthful stint as a ‘Ban the Bomb’ marcher really affect anyone’s job performance as a worker for a nuclear utility? Is someone photographed downwind of ‘Ground Zero’ in NYC later going to be getting a denial letter from a health insurer? Will someone donating money to a roadside beggar be ‘outed’ by those opposed to neighborhood blight due to license plate recognition software? I rather doubt these are the problems with online identity management. The problem is more how to broadcast “doctor” without having to send an email saying “take two aspirin and go bug someone else in the morning”. Or how a woman can have a tag of ‘model’ without having to later send emails about “I’m not THAT kind of model’. Or how a programmer can have a ‘python’ tag without arousing the interests of snake fanciers or computer neophytes who have uninteresting questions.

  4. Christian I’m not sure I understand, but you can develop Facebook based applications for free using the API tools at

    FoolsGold – several interesting examples there and I think the internet is often used as a “profiling” tool for job applicants, other interview candidates, potential date partners, and many more.

  5. Proximity and signal strength amidst the permanence of data and the accessability of search engine spiders:

    Continuing a bit further with the analogy of a lapel pin in the real world to one in cyberspace: what might be needed is a site wherein recency of data and strength was indicated. So “chess player” might be indicated for ‘Southern California’ and for ‘airports’ but not elsewhere. Saab Owner might be indicated but only for Del Norte County, CA. In this way a “Cyberspace Lapel Pin site” might be a place wherein one maintained an identity with several layers of specificity and permanence.

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