Friday, August 18, 2006

What the blogspace needs now...

I was listening to a podcast of a talk given by Anil Dash of Six Apart (the creators of Movable Type, TypePad and LiveJournal) in which he talks about blogs and social networks (you can listen for yourself here. Check out more at ITConversations.com), and something he said really resonated with me. He mentioned that by and large, most bloggers don't consider themselves "citizen journalists," nor do they do what they do to influence people or affect change. He submits (and I assume that he's got the numbers to back this up), that this type of blogger makes up only 10% of the larger community, and that the primary goal of those in the long tail is to have personal conversations with friends and family. He goes on to say that in this context, "real influence is not the sheer number of people that read what you write. Real influence is the people that you're connected to that actually care about what you say; that take what you say as important and meaningful in their lives."

People are using their blogs and social networks like MySpace to keep up with their friends, re-connect with old acquaintances and share with their family. I know, that's an obvious statement but please bear with me. I'm going somewhere with this. They also use them for networking with business contacts, bands and other people who share a mutual interest but for all intents and purposes are complete strangers.

Therein lies the rub. What results is a need to maintain multiple social networks. Due to the limited flexibility of most social networks, they don't do a good job of reflecting our social interactions in real life. Our online networks become segmented. We only have so much time in our day, and we are limited in the number of networks in which we can participate. I don't have any hard numbers to back this up, but I've heard that the average number of networks used by an individual is roughly four to ten. Students tend to participate in more of these networks.

So what now? How do we counterbalance the segmentation of our online lives? We consolidate. We try to kill as many birds with as few stones as possible. We make sure that one of our online social networks includes a MySpace, or MySpace equivalent. If we group most of our contacts on one of these ├╝ber-networks, we are able to visit with more of our contacts while visiting fewer social networking sites, reducing the overhead and time required to maintain these networks.

This creates a new set of problems, though. In real life, we generally tend to be aware of our audience when it comes to sharing the juicy little details that make up our life. We don't tell the same stories that we tell our close friends to our aunt June or our co-workers. On the flip-side, we don't want to know that our boss gets a rash whenever she uses Tide (this is a fictional example!) This happens on larger social networks like MySpace. Friends, acquaintances, co-workers and family (to a lesser degree) are all put in the same boat. MySpace isn't granular enough to tell the difference. There are quite a few documented cases where MySpace has been the cause (direct and indirect) of firings (1, 2), arrests (1, 2, 3, 4), suspensions (1, 2, 3) and more. Moreover, an increasing number of employers are perusing potential employee MySpace accounts, and using that information in the decision making process (About.com). The same problem exists with blogs as well. Wall Street Journal columnist Jeremy Wagstaff has found that "7.1% of companies have fired an employee for violating blog or message board policies." (the LOOSE wire blog). Blogs, being the one-to-many distribution system that they are, generally do not discriminate their content based on the person viewing it.

Where does this leave us? We either A) risk disseminating far too much personal information in an effort to share with the people that we care about, or B) maintain a segmented social network in multiple venues and limit participation on the larger, more public networks. One could always opt out entirely, but where's the fun in that?

What the blogspace and online social networking sites need now is a more robust way for users to segment their audience, thus filtering their content. As Mr. Dash indicates, "if you want to make an environment where people can really connect, you have to acknowledge how they actually act." No one has 1000 friends on MySpace, but someone may have 30 friends, 20 family members, 50 co-workers, and 900 acquaintances or other contacts (even that might be stretching it, but you get the idea). The idea of "six degrees of separation" is intriguing, but it doesn't bode well for your contact list. By segmenting their friends list, users could then post pictures and content in relative confidence, knowing that the content would be viewed by their target audience. Similarly, bloggers could share the intimate little details of their life with their intimate friends, rather than the world at large.

Flickr, a photo sharing website and community, has the right idea. Although rudimentary, it offers a way to break up your contact list into Contacts, Friends and Family. It allows the user to share personal photos with their friends and/or family while limiting the exposure of those moments with the rest of web. If more social networking and blogging sites followed this example by embedding privacy and permissions data into the content published by the user, it could create a more efficient way for users to participate, while at the same time limiting the exposure to the less desirable consequences of sharing too much with too many. MySpace has introduced the concept of a "Preferred List" of people who are allowed to view certain blog posts, but it has a long way to go.

Mr. Dash believes that his company is about 12 to 18 months away from this. The good news is that there are some players in the "social communication industry" that have identified this problem and are working towards a solution. Doing so would alleviate many of the issues faced by bloggers and social network participants, allowing many to take back their content. It's no silver bullet, but a few choice changes could allow MySpace users to make MySpace their space once again and allow bloggers to share with friends and family in the format that they've grown to know and love without exposing themselves to those they may regret.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Vicki said...

I completely agree. I have long-since abandoned hi5 (does anyone even remember that) and even Friendster is getting dusty. I'm on MySpace only by being forced to by a friend. I didn't even bother to fill out my profile, except for a picture so my friends who incessantly add me would know it was the "real" me. It's just too much work. At that to updating my personal blog and my company's blog and I'm spending quite a bit of time maintaining my online prescence. Something definitely needs to happen.

Fri Aug 18, 09:28:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Vicki said...

And proof of the needing-to-separate thing is the fact that I don't even allow people to view my profile because I don't want everyone and their Aunt Edna :) to be able to link to my personal blog, yet I do want to be able to comment intellectually (or to the best of my ability) on other people's blogs. I guess I could create two accounts, but here we go again with the maintenance. Though it seems I DO have time to post two comments ...

Fri Aug 18, 09:31:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Vicki said...

And I DO have time to point out I meant *things. Sheesh.

Fri Aug 18, 09:32:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Art Wholeflaffer said...

An excellent post. This points, perhaps, at one of the reasons older people are less interested in online social networks: they already know the difference between (say) a friend and a co-worker. Rather than sharing indiscriminately, they would rather not share at all.

(Stumbled upon your blog because it was a Blog Of Note today.)

Mon Aug 21, 02:14:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Ancient Clown said...

I created my site at the request of others and to aid in reaching those now who otherwise would be beyond my reach for years to come. To drop a cosmic pebble in cyberspace that ripples still to the farthest reaches of man's mind.
Of course, that's just me.
"I don't think I know...I just know I'm thinking."
your humble servant,
Ancient Clown

Mon Aug 21, 04:47:00 PM PDT  
Blogger bharath said...

Ya, thats a nice post.
And, recently, there was a news on Digg that Blogger is going to bring in lots of privacy features shortly.
That would boost blogspot users!

Tue Aug 22, 07:01:00 AM PDT  
Blogger somal thakore said...

Nice and interesting.

Tue Aug 22, 01:14:00 PM PDT  

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