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The Future of Social Networking?

I was tempted to call this post ‘The Future of Facebook’, but considering all the anti-Facebook rhetoric out there at the moment I didn’t want to send the wrong message. I like Facebook. I’m in touch with a lot of people I otherwise wouldn’t be because of it, and for that alone I’m grateful. Falling out with Facebook feels like the adolescent trend of falling out with your parents when you realise people aren’t perfect. So this post isn’t about the future of Facebook per-se, but since they’re the biggest social networking game in town, it also sort of is.

Before we go on, let me set out my stall: a few years back, when Facebook reached its tipping point, an old friend signed up and was blown away by what he saw. The words he used to describe it have stuck with me ever since and they form the bedrock on which all my opinions about social networking are built. He called it “Email 2”.

I had to agree with him. Inadvertently, Facebook took everything that was wrong about email and fixed it while at the same time taking a lot of what was good about email and made it better. So I no longer get 200mb emails of photos of some distant relative’s trip to the German Occupational Health & Safety Exhibition clogging up my inbox. People put them on Facebook and I can ignore them there.

I’ve also seen a huge reduction in those über long emails sent to five or more people, who all reply at different times, so coherent conversation is quickly stripped from existence and all you’re left with is something that reads like Lindsey Lohan at an after party. Now, Facebook keeps one continuous thread and all correspondence is more or less organised. Organised enough for me at least.

And then there’s Messages, which isn’t as good as Email 1 in many ways, but I’m sure it’ll get better.

For me though, what’s most important is that I get all that stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise got before because it just didn’t feel like email material. So now I get chirpy little updates when some girl, usually “the one that got away” enters a relationship, sending me into a cycle of critical self assessment and heavy drinking. I know when someone I sort of know, but not well enough to call a friend, is having a party that I can crash. And thanks to Facebook, I’m dynamite at remembering birthdays now too!

And I get all this info in a non-intrusive, passive way. Which works really, really well.

Now Facebook clearly wasn’t the first social network to come along, but it was the first to do social networking well. It could be better, but if history tells us anything (which it doesn’t) it’s that it could also be a lot worse. Facebook also isn’t the only social networking platform on the block. There’s LinkedIn and Twitter to name two very successful ones that are also completely different. And herein lies a problem. For all that Facebook is good at, it’s not so good at what LinkedIn does. I find that there’s some cross over between the two which leaves a gaping hole in Facebook’s and LinkedIn’s collective usefulness since the two are mutually exclusive for the most part. With email, I can communicate directly with anyone else with an email account.

There are many other areas in which Email 1 is better than Email 2 at the moment, but for now I’ll focus on this point; the ability to communicate with people on different social networks is important.

To solve this problem, we need a distributed social networking protocol (DSNP), like the email protocol or HTTP which is how all those webpages get to where they need to be. There needs to be a standard on which all social networks are built. The good news is, people are already working on it…

A DSNP would allow people to treat their social network like they treat their email. It means you’d be able to up sticks and leave Facebook to join another social network, and take all your important info with you. You wouldn’t be tied to anything and you wouldn’t lose anything in the move. I also predict a wealth of web based, mobile and desktop social networking applications that present your social networking content in different ways, allowing you to choose a service that best suits your tastes.

There is, however, one very big obstacle standing in the way. Facebook, and its $50 billion valuation.

First of all, this would mean a complete rebuild of Facebook, and right now, what’s the point? They’re king of the hill.

Secondly, there’s no economic incentive to motivate Facebook to make it easy for you to leave. I’m not implying that they’re anti competitive and therefore they’re evil, but they are a business with investors, and they’ll be just as resistant to change as the record labels were to digital downloads. No right thinking business will willingly harm its bottom line. In fact, doing so is illegal in most countries.

But here’s the rub. That’s YOUR data, and there are reams of data protection laws that mean you’re entitled to your data at all times. And since all that is needed to get access to every little bit of data in your Facebook account is your email address and password, there’s no reason why transferring all your current social networking to another couldn’t be automated.

So that’s my prediction for the future of social networking. Diversity and portability enabled by a distributed social networking protocol. As for Facebook, they’ll take a big hit, as will LinkedIn and Twitter, but they have a huge head start so if they’re responsive to change in a positive way, there’s no reason they couldn’t carve out a very profitable chunk of the market for themselves. If they don’t they will fail.

People tend to think of the web as a destroyer of old school business models, but it moves so fast that brand new, state of the art business models that are still in beta can be eaten up just as easily. The more popular the trend, the faster the momentum, and social networking is definitely ‘on trend’ right now. It’s here to stay, of that we can be certain. The top and tail of all this however is that Facebook’s $50 billion valuation is untenable. Its business model won’t survive if a DSNP gains any sort of traction. If that happens, someone’s going to lose a lot of money.