Seeing Other People

Last year, the social networking giant Facebook got
some good news and some bad news. The good news: In spring, it surpassed
rival MySpace in unique visitors and pageviews worldwide. The bad news:
A vocal segment of its more than 100 million users hated the
site’s redesign, which went live last fall.

Why the outrage?
After all, the new structure, which compartmentalized different aspects
of a user’s Facebook life under various sets of navigation tabs,
reined in the site’s visual clutter. But it also fragmented user
profiles and ghettoized popular widgets and applications (like the dear,
departed Scrabulous). A user posting on “1,000,000 Against the New
Facebook Layout,” one of many Facebook groups formed to protest
the changes, outlined complaints like broken applications and
user-unfriendliness while noting, “Personality is gone from
everyone’s main page.”

These two developments in the life
of the young company—the growing user base and the backlash
against the redesign—offer a snapshot of the current state of
social networking. The phenomenon has become an integral part of our
lives, but how much say will users have in what they do with social
networking and what it looks like?

“I consider the first social
network to have been AOL,” says Adam Ostrow, the editor in chief
of the popular social networking–focused blog Mashable. “Users had
profiles, and lists of their interests. You could meet other users
through chat rooms and check out their profiles.” The cloistered,
heavily managed online worlds set up by AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy are
the ancestors of Facebook and MySpace—but their users had no
control over how their profiles were displayed, and no connection to the
rest of the internet.

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Twitter: With its on-the-go status updates, Twitter turns social networking into a lifestyle choice.

The other 1990s precursor to the
social-networking profile page was the amateur home page. “Web
rings” emerged to organize these free-floating sites and group
them around topics (the most popular web ring was briefly operated by
Yahoo!). But web rings only connected the network’s pages by
placing a “previous” and “next” button on each
page and linking out to each site from a central hub.

This all
changed with the 2002 launch of Friendster. “Friendster was the
first explicit social network site in terms of the way we think about it
today,” Ostrow says. Part of what made Friendster sticky was how
easy it became to assert a digital persona—mimicking the already
familiar meme of the home page. “The very idea of self-identity on
the internet goes [back] to the home page,” explains Ernie Hsuing,
a developer advocate for the next-gen social networking site Ning, and
previously a front-end engineer for Yahoo!’s social networking
site Yahoo! 360°. “The home page, at the end of the day, is a
photo and basic information about you. That’s exactly what a
profile page on Friendster showed.” Critically, though, Friendster
profiles could be visible to all. Anyone with a browser could see there
was a social network and that you as an individual were a distinct part
of it. And unlike home pages, Friendster profiles required no
programming knowledge on the part of users. Friendster’s other
major innovation was to present this information in the friendly,
unfussy manner that has become a hallmark of Web 2.0 aesthetics. This
helped drive desire on the part of users to surf the site regularly, and
to check out the identities other people had created.

Friendster’s clarity in mapping its community’s structure
for all to see turned “social networking” into a
catchphrase. But technical limitations led to extensive downtime for the
site, creating an opening for an interloper. First launched in 2003,
MySpace upped the ante. The site gave savvy users access to HTML and
stylesheets, allowing them more control over the look of their pages
(and spawning a cottage industry of MySpace customization services). If
social networking was about creating identity, on MySpace it had become
that much easier to make one’s identity visually distinct.
“It was very empowering,” says Jeremy Zilar, a design
specialist for blogs at The New York Times. “You could go
to this crazy site and pick your colors. That was a huge evolutionary
change.”

 

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Friendster: With its clean design, Friendster made the concept of social networking sticky.

 
This amount of user control fed the site’s
cluttered, garish, laissez-faire look. Still, it gave MySpace users a
greater sense of ownership and made the site a contemporary repository
for what web artist and theorist Olia Lialina has called the
“vernacular web”—the early amateur-driven visual
culture of the web that has largely been snuffed out by the
professionalization of online design. “It’s a way to make
yourself unique and different, the way we were all taught that
we’re unique snowflakes in elementary school,” Hsiung
says.

Facebook, invented by a Harvard undergraduate and launched as a
closed social network for college students in 2004, became open to the
rest of the world in 2006.The site has never shown much interest in
users’ freedom of expression. As might befit a site born in the
Ivy League, it has always been about order and organization.
Facebook’s design is a somewhat updated version of the Web 2.0
aesthetic that Friendster championed, and which has now become the
digital design standard: soft, rounded corners and minimal clutter. On
Facebook, users are restricted to plain text, while the site puts the
emphasis on activity streams, or News Feeds, showing users what their
friends are up to. Rather than personal style, interests and activities
are the measure of identity.

Facebook and MySpace have both suffered
their share of design-related problems. MySpace has been criticized for
allowing an aesthetically incoherent environment to flourish, one marked
by profile pages that won’t load, that have illegible type, and
that too often host spam. When Facebook opened its platform to
third-party developers in the spring of 2007, it saw its site, which had
been praised for its clean, navigable interface, larded with novelty
apps. This helped prompt the redesign, which allowed the site to
“sweep the third-party applications under the rug,” as Zilar
says.

 

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The new Facebook: It’s all about menus and tabs!

 
This Facebook strategy of creating an uncluttered site that
renders complex functionality intuitive and manageable has become the
dominant one for social media. In part, that’s because our online
activities have become so numerous and diverse: Among many other sites,
we now have Digg, Delicious, and StumbleUpon for bookmarking; Flickr
and Picassa for photo sharing; YouTube and Vimeo for watching video;
Last.fm for listening to music; Bloglines for reading and sharing
stories; and Twitter for micro-blogging. We need simple, smartly
designed tools to manage all this choice.

Enter the social
aggregators. These are meta–social networks, designed to consolidate all
your social activities in a single location and spark conversations
around it with friends there. FriendFeed is a prime example. The
brainchild of some ex-Googlers, it launched to much buzz last year at
South by Southwest. Its competitors include Iminta and Socialthing! (The
latter was recently acquired by AOL.) Aaron Newton, co-founder of
Iminta, describes aggregators’ purpose: “If all your friends
are on Flickr and you want to talk to them, but Picassa is more
appropriate for the kinds of pictures you take, you don’t want the
software to determine your behavior.”

But while aggregation
may give users some control over their far-flung content, it can’t
promise much to those who want to be in charge of their own online
niche. That’s where Ning comes in. Co-founded by Netscape legend
Mark Andreessen, Ning bills itself as a social network for people who
want to create their own social networks. In this way, Ning incorporates
both the Facebook and MySpace approaches, giving users the power to
construct an aesthetic identity while providing access to a rich array
of Web 2.0 content. Andreesson has suggested that Ning could provide an
alternative to users hemmed in by Facebook and MySpace in the same way
that 1990s home pages offered freedom from the confines of AOL and
Prodigy. Kyle Ford, Ning’s director of product marketing, says,
“When you’re joining one of those, you’re joining
their world, and when you go with us, you’re creating your own
world.”

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MySpace: The site puts aesthetics in the hands of users—for better and worse.

 
Of course, it’s still a world hosted by Ning. For
all its sophistication, it remains a service just like MySpace,
Facebook, or AOL before it. A growing number of open-source software
projects like Elgg and LovdbyLess aim to enable users to re-create the
functionality of services like Ning in a decentralized way that gives
each person total control of his or her data. These systems could lead
to a future for social networking that’s more like the old days of
the web ring, allowing user-based design to play a much more significant
role: Rather than merely being able to give pages a different
“skin,” as on MySpace, users in this paradigm will be
network architects themselves. It’s like moving from coloring
books to Legos.

Even in the world of hosted social networking
services, there are plenty of signs of increased openness. In late 2007,
Google released the OpenSocial platform, designed to allow third-party
developers to create widgets and applications for any site that supports
the software. Both MySpace and Facebook announced initiatives last May
that will let users log in to other sites using their MySpace or
Facebook identities.

What all of these developments indicate is that
social networking has become something much greater than a list of our
interests and our friends. It’s about managing the ever-expanding
number of social applications we’re using every day in ways that
are meaningful and intelligible to us. While there are sure to be
growing pains along the way, the end result should be users who are more
empowered to be designers, curators, creators—masters of their
online universe.

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