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Do we really want to aggregate *ALL* our social networks together?

Automatically inserted editorial note: this post was written 10 years ago, it may no longer represent my own views. Or just be a crazy post from my youth!

Despite reading insightful posts such as “Social Network Fatigue and the Missing Web 2.0 Address Book” by Tim O’Reilly I continue to wonder whether the majority of social network users really want to see their accounts joined up between the disparate social networks that they use.

Tim quotes from a recent post by John Udel on this subject matter, who in turn cites ‘levels of duplication’ across social networks as a major frustration.

What I think Jon and Tim (+ others) forget is that all that duplication occurs in different contexts across the social networks a given user belongs to. The same information and meta-data may exist in both a person’s MySpace account and their LinkedIn account… but both networks have very different contexts. Not only that but in many cases people want those two contexts to remain separate (and may even be well-advised to do so!).

Jane’s social life is reflected on MySpace – but it may not be something she wants potential employers to see via the LinkedIn profile she gives out. Even if she is not a wild-girl, it’s highly unlikely there is anything on her MySpace account that is going to positively contribute to her job application so why would she want her recruiter to be able to check it out? Same goes with what she did at university (via Facebook) and her love of dogs (via Dogster), etc, etc.

I know many people, including my wife, who sign up for social networks and other related accounts with different user names because they want to keep things separate. Hooking them all up semantically using an aggregation service of somekind is probably the last thing she would want to do.

When you aggregate your online identities you actually loose control of your data – you loose the social mechanisms we create to keep our ‘real life’ social networks apart. In many ‘vanilla’ examples that ‘loss of control’ is actually a good thing – it might be unlocking a corporate contact network so that everyone in the organization can benefit. But when that aggregation crosses the boundaries between personal and business, or even ‘public’ and ‘private’ we have a problem.

In her research of MySpace, danah boyd actually found that many teen users of the site regularly dumped their accounts and created new ones because they did not perceive a value in maintaining a continuous identity across one social network.

And anyway, Jon and Tim are actually unusual cases and it’s not a good idea to base conclusion upon their use. They’re probably not the typical demographics for Social Networks (certainly not MySpace, Bebo, Hi5, etc) and as ‘thought leaders’ and ‘evangelists’ its in their interest to represent themselves in public more than the average person. And frankly, they also are probably pretty squeaky clean, too.

In his post, Jon Udel cites the following (understandable) logic to back his argument up:

“Years ago at BYTE Magazine my friend Ben Smith, who was a Unix greybeard even then (now he’s a Unix whitebeard), made a memorable comment that’s always stuck with me. We were in the midst of evaluating a batch of LAN email products. “One of these days,” Ben said in, I think, 1991, “everyone’s going to look up from their little islands of LAN email and see this giant mothership hovering overhead called the Internet.””

Actually whilst this is true to a point, back in 1991 people would log into many different BBS’s to collect their messages – all of which created the same kind of ‘hermetic seal’ between their different (online) social lives. Messages posted around the ‘hackers n crackers’ BBS would stay separate to the university BBS they used, which in turn would stay separate to their corporate LAN email that they would dial in to receive.

When the Internet did arrive, people didn’t suddenly pile everything into their shiny new federated email account – and even now most people keep separate email accounts for work and personal.

Jon’s anecdote is very much the kind of logical analysis and conclusion you would expect to hear from someone he (nicely) refers to a ‘greybeard’. I would say ‘computer scientist’ or logical purist.

But as we know, the way in which people use and interact with social networks is often organic, and not logical. Indeed in the rest of the world, the ‘normal people’, do not behave in such logical ways.

Finally in both Tim O’Reilly and Jon Udel cite plenty of benefits you would get if your friends were all aggregated up. But there seems to be very few benefits as to why you would want to aggregate your own accounts together.

So, as I wrote in a comment to Tim’s post

I wonder whether we should first be investigating whether the wider public actually want to link everything up together before we go cutting this new path into bold new territory? Despite the fact that it maybe the *logical* thing to do, I’m not sure they do.

Published in Media2.0 Thoughts and Rants

10 Comments

  1. That’s a very interesting way of looking at it – but I’d probably say that aggregation is more useful for me as a user managing their digital world (i.e. one dashboard to rule them all or one a central place to manage your connections) rather than a way for other participants to see a merged view of my social network identities.

    As you suggest – I don’t think exposing all your identities across all your social networks to the public via aggregation is not necessarily a desirable outcome.

  2. Jon Udell Jon Udell

    “I continue to wonder whether the majority of social network users really want to see their accounts joined up between the disparate social networks that they use.”

    People will have, and use, various identities: the social me, the business me, etc. It would be wrong to smash all those together and that’s not what I’m suggesting.

    I am suggesting that where the attributes of the social me overlap on Flickr and YouTube and elsewhere, I should have the /option/ to consolidate.

  3. I’m with you Ben. I think people would prefer to keep the majority of their social account separate.

    The one place I do see a convenience would be a single profile source where you can share the basics (optionally to include: name, home town, blog URL, photo URL, dating status, AIM, YIM, flickr, etc.)

    Then when you join a new network that isn’t too important to you, you can submit your shared profile URL where the new site can suck in your info each on a regular basis. If you get married, or want to show off your new nose ring, that status or photo is reflected immediately instead of having to change them on each site.

    But even this I would see as only a option for social sites you’re not that into, where you aren’t using a photo or name that doesn’t more precisely reflect your association to that topic.

  4. Ben-

    It’s a shameless self plug, but even if it were someone else’s project I’d mention it. You just described a lot of the ideas behind FindMeOn.com : every online account listed becomes its own URL + widget + API feed that other services can point to for a data-sync — and you can explicitly hide / link different online accounts from one another. The example we’ve been using for the past few months is that you dont want your myspace stalkers to see your family photos, and you don’t want your family to see whats going on in myspace.

    Working in tandem with the commercial offering is an open standard node structure at findmeon.org — which uses public-key cryptography to link + shield online accounts from one another.

  5. Ben: Whilst your points make sense, there is a middle ground here that I think everyone would want.

    At a basic level, as Ted says, the ability to change some basic profile data in one place is useful. There is nothing worse than having to update your email address, msn or whatever at all the different social networking sites just because some of your friends happen to prefer using one and not the other, or you have multiple personas.

    Of course maybe version 2 of such a system would allow you to intelligently manage your identities across different sites so you can have a public and private persona, or even multiple of each!

    To pull something like this off though, a social network API standard is needed.

  6. dep dep

    I think having a way to synchronize and aggregate all of our various social networking sites would be awesome… If theres something you don’t want to aggregate, then don’t aggregate it. The choice is yours. OR, have a personal aggregated portal for personal things and a business one… Keep them separate. Should be easy to do this.

  7. aboutthisboy aboutthisboy

    Dep,
    I also agree that it’s a personal choice and I have gone with keeping personal and business seperate. I’m planning on setting up a personal/social portal page which will aggregate all info from Flickr, Last.fm etc, then keep a personal blog elsewhere.

  8. There is one service – Atomkeep.com – it allows to sync your profile across you favorite social networks or job boards, or even altogether.

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