The Future of Social Networks: Societal Structure

Posted: January 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Web/Tech | Tags: , , | 32 Comments »
So Facebook has 600 million users. Many people are saying that Facebook will now be here for ever, and the entire planet will eventually be on Facebook. The same people are saying it will grow to be the biggest company in history, and that it’ll make a killing for investors. I disagree. This article explains why I disagree, and discusses what social networks should look like to succeed.Social networks are still in early days. I don’t think they’ve really matured in any way, because they are still built on false assumptions that were made beginning with the first few mainstream social networks. The system of “friending” is completely broken, and yet many people don’t realize it because they don’t stop to ask why it is that way.

Facebook says that all my friends and contacts are of equal importance to me. They know this isn’t true, but there is no way for me to distinguish between friends I am truly close with or contacts that I met at a conference and felt obliged to accept on Facebook. In real life, we rank our connections in order of how important they are to us and how close we are with them. But on Facebook, this system has gone out the window because that functionality is not built into the social network.

But there is more about Facebook that is broken. Facebook is a “one-size-fits-all” social network. In other words, it thinks that everyone will find use in Facebook as long as they are on it with their friends. They believe that the higher the number of users they have, the more likely it is that people will keep joining. But this view goes against societal laws.

We live in societies in real life because we surround ourselves with people who share similar values, beliefs, and interests. Sure, the fact that I support one political party over another says that I have slightly different values to the person next to me, but fundamentally our values and beliefs are very similar. And living in a society allows me to know that anybody I meet will have fundamentally the same mindset as me. People who share similar religions live in the same societies, because they understand each other. This means that I can meet new people, and be social with a group outside of my existing close friends, with the knowledge that anybody I meet will be essentially similar to me.

Think about the term social network for a moment. When we hear it, we think of online social networks, like Facebook, with a system of “friending” and where we only communicate with our existing contacts. But social network is a broad term. Actually, it kind of describes how we relate to our contacts in real life. We have our own social network in real life, and you know what? It works. It’s called our society, and it’s been around for decades, if not centuries.

My question is: why aren’t online social networks built like physical societies?

Imagine this model as three circles, one inside of the other. The inner circle has your core group of friends and family – you share everything with them. There may only be 25 people in there, but these are the people who you would call to tell them something important that has just happened. They mean a lot to you. You’ll connect with these people by “friending” them – ie. mutual designation.

The next circle, which is quite a few times larger than the inner circle, is made up of your connections. These are the people who you’ve met at conferences, or know from school – you’re not close with them, but you’d talk to them if you saw them on the street. To connect with these people, you just have to specify them as a connection. It’s more like “following” them, only they will see that you have specified them as a connection and they can specify you back.

The third and final circle is made up of outer society. People you don’t know, but who you may meet someday. You cross paths with these people every day, but just haven’t yet taken the time to stop and talk to them. This final circle is huge – many, many times bigger than the previous two – and you have no direct link to them unless you choose to.

What this model allows is for us to differentiate between true “friends”, and mere “connections”. You can have a clear distinction between the two, allowing you to know more clearly who what you are sharing will reach. It gives you the ability to share more with those you really care about, without annoying connections. And, likewise, it allows you to share things with connections that you wouldn’t share with your family. And what about “outer society”? Well, you can interact with them as much or as little as you want.

The beauty of this model is that it allows us to choose how we want to use our social network. If we want to use it like Facebook, we can do that – the choice is entirely up to us.

But there will not be just one social network that looks like this. There will be tens, if not hundreds of them – each with millions of users. The social network that you are a part of will be a representation of who you are as a person. It will signify your values, beliefs, and interests.

When will this shift in model of social networks occur? I believe it will start in a year and a half, and reach the mainstream in about three years from now. That’s time for these new social networks to be built and perfected.

In any case, the battle of the social networks is far from over. Facebook hasn’t won, and there are plenty of genius programmers at colleges around the world. Good luck.

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  • akuzi

    Facebook does allow you to distinguish between friends using Friend Lists. I have a few set up for relatives, acquaintances, work colleagues and ‘restricted’. People in my ‘restricted’ list can only see my name and profile picture the same as if they weren’t a friend. If FB didn’t have this feature I cannot imagine how I could use it! There are limits to how far you can go with classifying relationships – for example the classification often needs to be kept private to avoid offense (eg. the different between colleague and friends often depends on the person).

    • Michael Moore-Jones

      That’s true – but I don’t think it allows us to distinguish enough. It all has to be done manually, and I have hundreds of friends on Facebook – it’s a huge job trying to sort them all into groups and then think about what I’m sharing with who. Believe me, I’ve tried!

      The system that I discussed in this post is meant to help you do it automatically – you don’t have to think of individual people you want to share something with and then find their groups. You know automatically if they’re a true friend, or just a connection, and can share accordingly with those groups.

      Good point though, I probably should have mentioned it in the post itself!

    • axeds

      eaxctly. use friend lists to control your post privacy and everything on your profile. 

  • Whoisbid

    I believe you are right! The battle is far from over. I am not a Facebook person. I don’t think I have ever spent more than a minute on it and I have not accepted several friend requests because those people are not my friends but people who want to connect to make more money. If I was ever to use Facebook I would like one account for my social life and another for business. Some people believe that we should mix business and social things but I personally don’t. When I go to play sports with others, business is the last thing on my mind.

    • Michael Moore-Jones

      Yeah – I think the structure of social networks that I propose here would actually be a solution to that. Because your business contacts are “connections”, not friends – therefore they would be put in a different class to your close friends and family.

      • Whoisbid

        I believe you are touching on something extremely important for the future of social networks. Can you believe since the last time I posted I still don’t want to use Facebook. Every time I look at it I get a bad feeling about some new contact who is trying to sell me something. Some guy posted on my wall but I did not even go to look at what he posted. That is because that guy keeps asking me to lend him money. I had the same experience on my Youtube channel too. People making friends and then asking to borrow money. Does anyone else have this kind of problem? I don’t think students will have this kind of problem because when I was a student I never had enough money..LOL!

  • Oflife

    Michael, agreed. We’re working on it.


    • Michael Moore-Jones

      Super glad people are working on it! And I must say, the more people working on different solutions the better – means we’re bound to get a better end-product.


    I think you are right that the concept will have to evolve. I think you are also right about the direction it will evolve. Another key point is that this evolution should happen outside of one or two or ten huge corporate entities. We need to find a way to ‘mount’ our own social networks and connect them as easily as we set-up email accounts (anywhere) and host html (anywhere).

  • Blaylojb

    I came to your web site through another party. I agree, but laugh. You could call them The 3 Circle of Hell, all of which would break out as your began to publically caste your, ahem, friends. Conceptually and insightfully, you identify current trends.

  • Samin Shams

    I think the key point in defining these circles is to study the content being posted. I believe the greatest shift in the social network model is from irrelevant content posted by friends or connections to relevant content posted by anyone, be it your friend or someone in the outer circle, that automatically finds you based on your interests. We are working on this.

    • Michael Moore-Jones

      Yeah, I agree with your thinking! And you’re saying you personally are working on it? Would love to hear more if possible – send me an email.


    I completely agree Michael, the problem with us humans is that we are only able to deal with a small amount of (less than 200 usually) true connections.

    I believe the future of social networks will be a far more fluid integration of your offline life with your online life, not the reverse.

    Facebook, or any of those social networks could have completely revolutionized both the internet and society if they let go of their hold on the company and let it become the peoples platform, for the people.

    Unfortunately as soon as you have investors on board who want you to run a social network like a company you are restrained from letting it go and become something far bigger than what a small team (in the scheme of users) are able to conceive and achieve.

    If we focus on collaboration and sustainability, creativity and productivity, respect and passion, openness and privacy we are surely able to achieve great things together.

    There needs to be a secure and smart platform for us to run our lives more efficiently. In this generation of information overload and super connectivity we need to be able to switch on and switch off effectively.

    Too little time online means you are missing out one amazing things and people happening all around the world (this hasn’t been possible until the invention of the internet). Too much time online and we miss out on real life.

    The key to the successful “Next big thing” is going to be the openness of the concept of “social” and the collaborative development of a platform for the people by the people. I don’t think a few smart genius programmers are going to be the ones who create this, it will be millions of smart people from all fields collaborating to make something that has never been created before.

    My vision has always been to either be involved in a movement like this, or to start it. I know there are millions of great people out there and thousands of great communities already online (and millions offline) but I still feel we are so fragmented. appears to be “A new social network to help people quit smoking” but really it’s everything. Why ? Because it can be. It just isn’t yet because I haven’t had a chance to let it go.

    Next week I think I am going to finally let it go. It took me a month of thinking about how to do this effectively but I think I have it figured out.

    Really keen to talk to you about my concepts and get your feedback.

    Thank you for publishing such thought provoking and challenging thoughts, you are truly one of the most inspirational people I have met and we need to work together!

    Keep up the awesome work and hopefully catch you up next week bro :)


  • Datt_mba

    Clearly told about different between the societies and social networking site.We can’t do lot more thing in social network than in societies.more over Google CIRCLE which is a Google’s new social network is going to be release.

  • Aditya Sarawgi

    There is an interesting concept in diaspora called as aspects, that allows fine grain control over your contacts. Maybe that is what you are looking for

    • soenke

      Yes, I checked that out as well. I see a lot of potential for Diaspora, that’s why I switched to that network. Setting up your own network within the network space of Diaspora allows for something like Extranets and focused social commerce markets for companies. I find this aspect very interesting as facebook just offers to use the space on their terms thereby prohibiting companies and organisations to maintain an individualised subnet of the network.

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  • JP

    Think again Michael.
    The network is already here and it is called MyCube.
    Beta testing as we speak.
    Doing all and more as you predicted.


    • Orwell1990

      We are under Beta testing 2, maybe we will fight against in the future.

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  • Jack Yan

    I like your theory on this, Michael, and I imagine it is already beginning for some. I have A Small World for people I know in real life, the majority of whom are my friends. I have 35 contacts on there. My Facebook (nearing 2,000 contacts) is divided into different categories of ‘friends’, so that I can at least try to manage how I interact with each group, with my friends (the pre-digital definition) having full access to my photographs and videos. It seems logical that Social Networking 2·0 would consist of more niche sites, for the reasons you outline (reflecting society) and for the simple fact that technology permits it (witness the proliferation in websites, covering all manner of niches).

    My other point that I have observed is that the top dog is never the top dog in perpetuity. In 1999, Altavista’s dominance of the internet as the number one site looked unassailable. It had a search engine and an Entertainment Zone (to which we licensed, incidentally). Then came this upstart called Google, and Altavista was history. Facebook risks heading the same way, and with each change it makes that take either privacy or functionality away, it will lose a few more users.

    Granted, the predictions of doom for Facebook have not come to pass: when the numbers were at 300 million, people were already predicting the end. That number has since doubled. But, as tastes evolve and as habits change, something will come along that just taps in to the Zeitgeist.

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  • Nickharley84

    Great post, here is my view on it
    Good luck in Singapore!

  • Quentin Todd

    I’m on Facebook but only have small connection points – no close friends who are ‘friends’ eg: my best friend doesn’t do or like Facebook. 

    I see great value in social networks but the word ‘network’ needs ‘narrowing’ (can this word be a tool?). I have no connections in my field of interest: foreign policy national security issues or urban design issues etc. and certainly no personal friends on Facebook. So ‘narrowing’ may sieve, and yet expand. I also believe ‘Cloud’ ought to be there too: check out the web browser Rockmelt ( it has functions that could be shared eg: facebook down on left side of browser and news feeds or fav websites on the right side.

    I believe what you are say Michael is prophetic. The changes you see will happen.

  • Guest

    hey nice detailed description of what kind of artificial intelligence has to be introduced in social networking.great!!

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  • Jan Trybenekr

    Honestly, really interesting and almost visionary point of view! You’re worthy of MyCube’s internship, indeed! If you’re interested, you can have a look at my article about a future relevance of social networks from a global perspective at: Enjoy your Asian summer!

    • Michael Moore-Jones

      Thanks, Jan. Found your article very interesting! Also read your latest post – I hadn’t heard about MyCube’s “Marketing Competition”. Seems a bit weird, and I completely agree with your point that spamming people doesn’t show you understand MyCube or its principles. Huge respect for sticking up for what you believe in and not competing in that.

      • Jan Trybenekr

        Thank you for your support, Michael! Keep up your good work!

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