The current explosion of social networking will soon result in most websites having a social networking component As a result the big step in social networking isn’t going to be who creates the next MySpace, Facebook, or YouTube, but who creates a website or software to consolidate all the data that all these networks produce. Currently the average social networking user uses two social networking websites; beyond that people find it hard to commit time to participating on other sites. As the social web evolves and we are forced to join more networks, data management will become very important so users are not overwhelmed. Companies are now trying to create ways to manage this data via desktop applications, browsers, or by websites, however all these proposed solutions come up short. Each type of aggregation service has its own issues. I would like to examine the leading services for each type of platform and ultimately explain the changes that need to be made to make a successful aggregation service.
The first aggregator that I would like to examine is the 8hands desktop applications. This program sits on your desktop just like an instant messaging client. 8hands allows you to aggregate up to 15 profiles including multiple profiles from MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter. Beyond that, you can also incorporate various RSS feeds so you can stay up to date with your favorite feeds without having to use a separate reader program. The desktop application will notify you in real time of any new messages, blog posts, comments to your profile pages or blogs, and updates of your friends on Twitter. Down the road 8hands is looking to incorporate Bebo, Friendster, and various other social networking services that they don’t currently interact with.
One of the interesting features of the program is that it automatically ranks the people that you are in constant contact with so they are easy to find and track. You can also set up a list of preferred contacts as well to compliment the automated list. From the application you can instant message other users of 8hands, which, while convenient, isn’t really a good solution for instant messaging aggregation due to the sheer amount of instant messaging programs available. 8hands doesn’t integrate the other instant messaging clients, which is something that lacking from this stand alone desktop application. Beyond the previously stated features, 8 hands also acts as a management tool for your media, if you want to pull an image or video from one of your existing accounts to post on a page or a blog you can drag and drop the code right from the application. It is an easy way to manage a lot of your content and share it in an easy manner.
The main criticisms of the program is the fact that they do not bring YIM, AIM, and MSN chat into the fold, which would help the program track other important social media applications. Also there isn’t any involvement from social book marking sites like del.icio.us, digg, or stumbleupon. For one to see things what their friends find important, they have to use other applications. Finally, the biggest issues with the program are that it slows down theperformance of most computers and switching from 8hands to other applications causes some of my other applications to lag.
Moving away from stand alone desktop software is a browser based aggregator, Flock. Flock is considered a social browser, based out of the coding of Firefox. With Flock you can integrate multiple social media portals like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, del.icio.us, magnolia, photobucket, and pizco. You can track the updates of your friend’s status on facebook and twitter much like 8hands, as well as tracking and managing media via their media streams tracker. Their tracking on facebook allows you to see the status changes of users, any new messages that you get, and any pokes that you receive.
An added benefit of Flock is that it can interface with your blogging platform of choice so you can write about and share media that you find on the web directly from your web browser. This is a very attractive benefit because you are able to control a lot of media via the browser which makes your blogging much more efficient. Because Flock is a web browser that is based off of Firefox you can add additional features to the browser via extensions. This gives users a little more flexibility to what they can do with their personal setup. This is a benefit that is unique to using the browser as the base of the application; currently desktop solutions do not offer customization or development of add-ons by third party programmers. As far as the web solutions go, there aren’t any with an open API that allow people to improve upon what is being offered.
While Flock doesn’t cause systems to lag like 8hands does, there are some severe problems with the platform namely the amount of other social networks that are not included, most notably MySpace. Flock just seems to be another application developed for specific users in mind, people that have preferences that align with technology elitists. It isn’t really built for the masses; they leave out a lot of sites and it doesn’t seem like it is technology based but done purely by the whims of the programmers. Also Flock doesn’t allow you to add multiple accounts for the same website, a feature that 8hands includes. It remains to be seen if there is going to be a course correction by Flock or if it is going to be left in the hands of third party developers to extend what Flock can do.
When we begin to examine the different web applications that are available for aggregation there are some major issues. Some of the services that are available only aggregate your links and profiles but not your data. Other services need to have your friends join their service in order to see their sites. The leading websites like Plaxco.com and Profilactic.com are the best aggregation services, but you need to bring your friends to their service, which defeats the purpose of trying to get all your data streaming through once place.
The web versions of these aggregators have the most potential but also all seem to be headed in the wrong direction. Because these services are being hosted elsewhere, the stress that your machine is put through is a lot less than using a browser or a stand alone application. Theoretically they should be able to offer up more websites allowing people to truly follow the conversations across multiple platforms. Both sites allow you to list dozens of sites that you are involved in, however they don’t pull data from all of these sites. They just let your friends know where to find you. Most of the aggregation services on the web are used in this fashion, a single place to list all your profiles, not pull data from them. Flock and 8Hands actually allow you to track what your friends are doing through these services, not just act as a staging point for people to connect with you beyond a single service. While the listing service is helpful with these sites, the whole idea of the social web and using these services is to be able to track the conversation that is going on across multiple platforms.
These sites are ignoring the core concept of the social web which is about communication and participating in these larger conversations. It is a complete and utter failure on their part to not really allow their users to track all the data that participating on social networking websites brings. No matter how flashy the design or how many networks they bring into the fold, it won’t matter until they embrace the idea of communication. Having a listing of places to find you but no way to completely track what you are doing or what your friends are doing makes these services rather pointless.
Overall it is nice to see that there are multiple attempts for people to embrace the social web and allow people to aggregate their data and content. However they all seem to lack in multiple areas and don’t offer a complete solutions. In the end, users want to be able to track what my friends are doing, have a hub for communication, and have a place to manage my content and deploy it to various other sites. None of these provide this solution in one setup. Hope though is on the horizon.
One project that has come to light in the last year and a half is a Carnegie Melon Capstone project that was sponsored by google called Social Stream. While the project was originally designed to help the interface of google’s social network orkut, it changed into a larger concept piece about the social web. There are five goals of the project, but three of them speak directly to the core of what I see as important.
Aggregated social content- Presenting all of a person’s social content in a single site makes it easier for users to keep up-to-date with their contacts by making the process of finding information takes less effort and time. With Socialstream, users no longer have to jump from site to site just to see if or what their contacts have been up to, since all information is easily accessible from a single location.
Sharing without Barriers- Socialstream allows users to post content to any participating network. Because of this, it can inherit the ability to handle any type of content: photos, blogs, video, audio, events, and many forms of structured data. By consolidating the controls for publishing in one place, users are free to consider the content of their posts, and only as an afterthought specify the people who should see it and the sites that host it. By consolidating content in one place, Socialstream increases the benefit of commentary and referring posts, and lowers the barriers to participation.
Publisher feedback- To allow publishers to see the reaction to their posts, Socialstream has interface elements which allow you to see all of the posts that you have made, track recent viewers of your content, and see new comments on your posts. Users no longer have to post information from numerous distinct locations and travel between several sites to see viewers of the content and the comments that have been made.
All three of these planks get to the core of the social web and what an aggregation site, program, or browser should be looking to accomplish. While this project is just a theory and there is no real working version of it, there are rumors that this will eventually become the type of platform google deploys as their real answer to social networking. In a utopian world this program would already exist, but the questions of monetization on these sites and the potential declining traffic they would face because of a single user interface needs to be answered. The potential loss of traffic and revenue to these social networking and sharing sites could be devastating. Some would argue though that the ability to monitor all of these sites in one interface would increase sign ups and participation on these sites. However, in the end these questions can only play out with the implementation of Social Stream.
As the social web progresses we will begin to seek out this aggregation. A way for us all to manage the content, contacts, and conversations that the social web presents, allowing us to spend more time participating and creating instead of tracking, and maintaining. This has to be the next major advance as we are forced to join multiple networks and need a way to manage all of our friends and contacts within them. As social networking sites for specific interests increase the users will need a clear and easy way to manage it.