Distributed Social Networks

As the NY Times article todayshows, social networks are sprouting up everywhere. Small niche sites such as the Portland Trailblazers, BarackObama, Nike, and now Ning’s wicked service which allows anyone to build their own in just a few minutes. But how many of these disparate sites will someone want to join?

Does some one need a full social network for every interest they have? There are some very broad markets primarily based on age and stage in life. These markets have a large set of people, all trying to define themselves and find their way, so huge networks make sense. A large network gives more ways to connect, find some one like minded or in a similar situation. MySpace dominates the teenage market, Facebook dominates the colleges, and the parenting space is currently up for grabs, though we hope my company Maya’s Mom will soon dominate it.

But what about the niches? Sports team I like, SF Giants, Buffalo Bills; every interest I have, photography, golf, horror movies, whatever. Do I need to join a social network for each? Setup yet one more profile, username and password, have one more spot to check messages and comments, more places to invite friends.

Having many small niche networks is great for keeping the site focused on an interest. If you want to write or talk about that interest, someone there will be interested. A small site lets you know most people in the network, which gives a greater sense of community. I recall reading in the IDEO innovation book that 150 people is the magical group size number.

Fred Wilson talks about this same issue, which I agree with him on what is needed. For many small niche sites to succeed we need an open network: a distributed authentication scheme, which looks like OpenID might be it. A distributed and secure way of sharing profile info, sharing friends and connections and all the other details that make up a profile. A permission system is needed on what you are willing to share with who and what network.

An uber home page is also needed. You don’t want to go to every network you are in just to see what is happening. This uber home could list which networks you are in, a conglomerate view of your writings and writings from others, messaging and notifications across all your networks. Plus you would probably want two views of the home page, one for your self and one to share with others

Google or Netvibes homepage seems to be a good start for the personal home page. You can use RSS now to tie together content from anywhere. Add widgets for email, photos and other content. Plus as more and more widgets become available from the social networks, more info will be able to embedded.

Facebook and MySpace do a decent job with the shared view, but they don’t tie together as much external content as freely as Google’s homepage. Facebook supports sharing and MySpace allows for widgets, but both are limited. I can share photos and videos easily enough with widgets, but it is still difficult to embed RSS feeds. Netvibes has the Universal Widget idea which seems like a good open method for creating embeddable object.

I look forward to seeing more interoperability between all the networks. I think companies should build to be as compatibility and interoperable with others, it’s what users want and what makes the internet work.