Robert Cringely predicts the imminent and surprisingly rapid demise of the social networking phenomenon. He is, of course and as usual, right. The writing is clearly on the wall – even the evil empire of Facebook is losing users. Poor old AOL, yet again getting in at the tail end of a storm with its acquisition of Bebo. And so the phenomenon that has scratched gaping holes in my time and patience for so long is on the way out. Not soon enough, I reckon. At least, in the main. It is a twisted variant of the tragedy of the commons, played out again and again. Instead of grazing sheep on a common, it is our attention and good will that are being eaten away. I suffer a death of a thousand knives as my friends and my 'friends' compete for my attention with both meaningful and meaningless communication. Email is more than enough to do that already, but the big social networking sites supply their own twist, offering mass-production of demanding drivel that takes no more thought than the click of a button. What makes them brilliant is also what will kill them, as surely as the sheep on the common will kill the grass that feeds them. Sure, most offer some control over what I receive, who I receive it from and whether they are my 'friend', but social pressures make it hard to reject people without them feeling slighted.
Some are better than others. those with a clear and undiluted focus (e.g. LinkedIn) are far less annoying than the general purpose sites. Others are built for specific communities: Elgg, in particular, springs to mind. The trouble is, Elgg is not federated to any great extent. There is simple import and even simpler export through open standards like RSS and of course HTML, but no deep intertwingling of Elgg sites.
The only one of the big ones that I have a lot of time for is Ning, which does what they all should do in parcellating its landscape with rich and diverse niches, almost none of which has any great value in itself but, as a member of the ecosystem, contributes to the richness of the whole and can pass on its genes (with some mutations) to others when it dies. The only problem with Ning is that it is a single site, which may be its ultimate undoing. As Robert Cringely notes, the business models for these things are decidedly shaky at best. What we really need is a distributed Ning, with open APIs that offer flexibility and customisation at low cost, and trustworthy standards-based transfer of identity between systems. I have just started looking at Noserub (thanks to Brian Kelly for pointing me to this) which seems to be moving in the right direction, though still rather incomplete (e.g. no support for OpenSocial) and as yet paying insufficient attention to issues of trust and privacy. I don't know if it has the momentum to really succeed, but it or something like it are what we need if we are to build truly social networks, with the power and controllability that is necessary to develop rich social ecologies.