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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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.