Seeing Other People

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

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

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

“I consider the first socialnetwork to have been AOL,” says Adam Ostrow, the editor in chiefof the popular social networking–focused blog Mashable. “Users hadprofiles, and lists of their interests. You could meet other usersthrough chat rooms and check out their profiles.” The cloistered,heavily managed online worlds set up by AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy arethe ancestors of Facebook and MySpace—but their users had nocontrol over how their profiles were displayed, and no connection to therest 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 thesocial-networking profile page was the amateur home page. “Webrings” emerged to organize these free-floating sites and groupthem around topics (the most popular web ring was briefly operated byYahoo!). But web rings only connected the network’s pages byplacing a “previous” and “next” button on eachpage and linking out to each site from a central hub.

This allchanged with the 2002 launch of Friendster. “Friendster was thefirst explicit social network site in terms of the way we think about ittoday,” Ostrow says. Part of what made Friendster sticky was howeasy it became to assert a digital persona—mimicking the alreadyfamiliar meme of the home page. “The very idea of self-identity onthe internet goes [back] to the home page,” explains Ernie Hsuing,a developer advocate for the next-gen social networking site Ning, andpreviously a front-end engineer for Yahoo!’s social networkingsite Yahoo! 360°. “The home page, at the end of the day, is aphoto and basic information about you. That’s exactly what aprofile page on Friendster showed.” Critically, though, Friendsterprofiles could be visible to all. Anyone with a browser could see therewas a social network and that you as an individual were a distinct partof it. And unlike home pages, Friendster profiles required noprogramming knowledge on the part of users. Friendster’s othermajor innovation was to present this information in the friendly,unfussy manner that has become a hallmark of Web 2.0 aesthetics. Thishelped drive desire on the part of users to surf the site regularly, andto check out the identities other people had created.

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


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

This amount of user control fed the site’scluttered, garish, laissez-faire look. Still, it gave MySpace users agreater sense of ownership and made the site a contemporary repositoryfor what web artist and theorist Olia Lialina has called the“vernacular web”—the early amateur-driven visualculture of the web that has largely been snuffed out by theprofessionalization of online design. “It’s a way to makeyourself unique and different, the way we were all taught thatwe’re unique snowflakes in elementary school,” Hsiungsays.

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

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


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

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

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

But while aggregationmay give users some control over their far-flung content, it can’tpromise much to those who want to be in charge of their own onlineniche. That’s where Ning comes in. Co-founded by Netscape legendMark Andreessen, Ning bills itself as a social network for people whowant to create their own social networks. In this way, Ning incorporatesboth the Facebook and MySpace approaches, giving users the power toconstruct an aesthetic identity while providing access to a rich arrayof Web 2.0 content. Andreesson has suggested that Ning could provide analternative to users hemmed in by Facebook and MySpace in the same waythat 1990s home pages offered freedom from the confines of AOL andProdigy. Kyle Ford, Ning’s director of product marketing, says,“When you’re joining one of those, you’re joiningtheir world, and when you go with us, you’re creating your ownworld.”


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

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

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

What all of these developments indicate is thatsocial networking has become something much greater than a list of ourinterests and our friends. It’s about managing the ever-expandingnumber of social applications we’re using every day in ways thatare meaningful and intelligible to us. While there are sure to begrowing pains along the way, the end result should be users who are moreempowered to be designers, curators, creators—masters of theironline universe.