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.