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.
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.