The Future of Social Networks

Note: I wrote this article in 2011, looking at how social networks could more accurately mimic real life societies. It ended up being the single most-read and most-commented-on piece on my blog. I was sixteen at the time, so excuse the writing. Interesting to see both how the numbers have changed since 2011 (600 million users! One and a half years!), as well as how Facebook has and has not moved closer to the vision I outlined.


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.

In Myanmar, Learning What is at Stake in Our Travels

In the summer after my freshman year of college I travelled alone through Myanmar. I used as a guide not Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor, but Somerset Maugham’s book The Gentleman in the Parlour, his travel diary of reflections and stories from a trip through Indochina in the early 1920s. I travelled by river, as Maugham did, on a restored Irrawaddy Flotilla Company steamship; I visited the sights that he wrote of, and stayed in the same hotel in Rangoon (now Yangon). Along the way I saw Myanmar through Maugham’s eyes, though that doesn’t mean I agreed with his descriptions.

There were surreal moments when I felt as though I was in Maugham’s world entirely, as though not a single thing had changed in the intervening 91 years. In these moments it took something to break the scene for me to realise I lived in a different world to Maugham’s. One evening I sat on the top deck of the ship which was tied up on the banks of the Irrawaddy near Mandalay. I was reading The Gentleman in the Parlour, as I did each day of my trip, but the passages I read that night were of the exact sights and sounds that I presently looked at; his ship might’ve been tied up in the exact spot mine was, and that evening’s weather and sunset seemed identical. As he recorded it: “The sun set on the other side of the river and a red cloud in the west was reflected in the tranquil bosom of the Irrawaddy. There was not a ripple on the water. The river seemed no longer to flow. In the distance a solitary fisherman in a dug-out plied his craft. A little to one side but in full view was one of the loveliest of the pagodas. In the setting sun its colours, cream and fawn-grey, were soft like the silk of old dresses in a museum… It was impressive to reflect that it had stood for so many centuries and looked down impassively upon the smiling bend of the Irrawaddy.” But I’m obliged to add to Maugham’s summary that in the background of this majestic scene were the guffaws of Americans and Australians, along with the perpetual droning of outboards attached to barges. Thousands of famished mosquitoes settled in for a feast despite their hosts’ best efforts to keep them out of the pantry, and a Californian felt the need to show off his camera’s new electronic viewfinder to all passengers nearby. It was thirty-three degrees celsius, the humidity unbelievable, and my clothes still stuck to me after the day’s stroll in Mandalay.

When one reads The Gentleman in the Parlour one can’t help but think that Maugham had the unique ability to never experience anything in his travels that detracted even slightly from a moment’s perfection. But moments when the spell was broken showed me how unlikely it was that that was the reality—only the reality he chose to pass on to his admiring and well-paying readers. Speculation, yes, but surely the mosquitoes were louder and noisier, more vicious, and as Maugham was later to discover, more likely to be carrying malaria. Surely his fellow passengers were equally as obnoxious at the wrong times, and roaming dogs, rabid, frightened him during the last few seconds of an Irrawaddy sunset. I’m not able to believe that Maugham was a traveler immune to every annoyance, perfectly calm and able to take everything as equally beautiful and part of a scene.

If that is true, then he was no different to any of us today. If Maugham were to make a Facebook account (despite the chuckle that image causes) he would fill it with beautiful pictures of himself frowning-smiling, as he did, in front of the sights of the “East”. Drink in hand, he would pose on the sun deck of the Flotilla Company steamer at sunset, next to friends and locals and other glamorous people, thinking of the sighs of awe that his reading public would let out when they see the photo on a foul London day. Travel writing was, in Maugham’s time, an earlier version of the Facebook glamour shot, available to the adventurous and wealthy few. We all engage in Maugham-style omission, projecting only the highlight-reel of our lives, and some seem to relish the thought of friends’ jealousy back home as much as I’m sure Maugham did.

Or perhaps there’s another explanation, which I was only able to see when re-reading Maugham after my trip: that I’m only able to speak of perfection and annoyances—I’m only conscious of them as an idea while traveling—because I view everything through the lens of Maugham’s writing and the perfected photos I’ve previously seen. I’m conditioned to seek out those “perfect” times, as defined by others’ photos and stories, so full of omission. If that is true, then travel is a search for the unattainable: nowhere, at any time, will ever come near to our preconceived notions. And out of fear of being viewed as inauthentic travellers, or unable to admit that the reality did not live up to the vision, we go home to partake in our own omission with curious friends, family, strangers… propagating that irreconcilable chasm between expectation and reality. It is telling that I couldn’t see this while in Myanmar, but only when I left and could look back on myself as a traveller.

I first remember critically reflecting on Maugham’s book that one evening on the top deck of the ship, right after the sun had set and I struggled to believe that Maugham’s descriptions were honest. But it is only recently that I’ve come to critically reflect on my own journey, on myself as a traveller and my use of Maugham as a guide.

I travelled to Myanmar because I wanted to see a country I’d heard so much about, and I used Maugham’s book as a guide because I wanted to view it through an historical lens. But in retrospect perhaps that was a mistake. I viewed the country through an historical lens, yes, but a lens that was so tied up with empire and colonialism that it was almost dangerous. On a separate trip to Phnom Penh in Cambodia I again stayed in a hotel that Maugham had stayed in and which he had written about in The Gentleman in the Parlour. Coincidentally—and these sorts of occurrences are what created my link to Maugham as a writer in the first place—I was placed in the hotel’s “Somerset Maugham suite”. On one level this was exciting, an inexplicable coincidence that left me examining every object in the room for signs of his long-ago presence. But in another sense it was troubling. It sold Maugham’s colonial lifestyle to wealthy travellers who never stepped back to question what it meant for a European traveller to be quite literally buying, for a few days, that life.

Writers often envelop us, holding us tightly when we read lines that cut to the heart of our thoughts and attitudes. These create powerful bonds that can often last a lifetime, and indeed there were aspects of this to the way I read Maugham—his attitudes to his own country while abroad, his patriotism, his descriptions of personalities he liked and disliked. But what I’m realising now is how we become different people through reading, no matter how much we have in common with the authors whose works we read. I’ve now read Maugham in over six Southeast Asian countries, three of them since my trip through Myanmar, and what has been more valuable than that trip to begin with has been seeing how my own attitudes have changed, including my attitude towards my own trip. My journey through Myanmar now seems to me less a grand adventure than merely a continuation of colonial influence and Orientalism in Southeast Asia, the sign of an unreflective teenager succumbing to the lure of pomp and grandiosity in what once seemed a part of the “exotic” “Orient”. Just as Orwell left Burma in disgust at his own role in the dynamics of empire, I too now worry about the systems of ideas and knowledge that led me to consider such a trip, and which blocked me and the other travellers I encountered from seeing the part we were playing in a larger historical narrative. Only now, years after my journey, can I see how Maugham’s version of the Facebook glamour shot kept me, just as it keeps many of us, from seeing what was really at stake in my travels.