Social Website Dysphoria

Where Does Second Life Fit In?

So, ironically, I complained about many bloggers and journalists, who wrote fascinating articles about SL or some other niche technology and moved over to talk about social networking sites, and I’m doing exactly the same? 🙂

Alas! The difference, I hope, is that there is a point to be made here.

My techie and geekish friends tell me that geeks will jump from technology to technology, as soon as “something new and shiny” comes out, because that’s in their nature. This explains, for instance, why the games industry knows that a game loses interest after half a year at most, and keeps launching new ones.

This is naturally quite disputable. SMTP-based email is around since 1972, and although people claim now that “one day we’ll just use Facebook to send messages”, I think not.

And the reason is simple: there is — and won’t be — no unifying protocol to tie all those social networking sites together. The current trend is further fragmentation — as the technology becomes way more easier to replicate — and not consolidation. Granted, APIs bridge the problem of fragmentation, but you still can’t send an email between MySpace and Facebook (or an IM!) and very likely will never do so: they’re ferociously competing and see no interest to “join forces”.

By contrast, open-source-based social websites will communicate among themselves, but they will be borderline — there will only be a lot of them. In the mean time, however, we’ll stick to email messages 🙂

So… on one side, innovation is important, in the sense that it pushes us ahead, it drives our creativity, and it also drives business. The whole concept of social websites filled a need for communication, vanity, and dating, and it was one that was quickly filled. Right now, however, the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anything new on that area. It’s tough to say that “there cannot be any more innovation” on social websites, since that would be placing little faith on the human nature of discovering new things. Still, you can take a look at how a blog works to see an example of a relatively mature technology: although every day a new feature or design issue is introduced, blogging, as a concept, stays pretty much the same. We’ll probably continue to blog in a decade, and the tools will be easier to use and more feature-rich, but a blog will continue to look like a blog, and fill the niche that blog fills.

Similarly, vBulletin or phpBB are very sophisticated software tools that allow forums, and they have thousands of cute features. But they’re not that different from the BBSes in the 1980s. A time-traveller from the 1980s jumping into a forum today would find it familiar. Similarly, someone only knowing IRC would look at a mix of Twitter and MSN conferences and flag it as just “IRC with bells and whistles”.

I believe that social websites are very close to the maturity stage. It’s very likely that a few new players will come up with something dramatically radical in the next couple of years — there are still enough unexplored territories — but, ultimately, social websites are starting to become commodities, just like CMS, blogging software, or forum software are commodities: all do the same thing, all work similarly, all produce the same results. There is no space left for dramatic changes. To be honest, at least on the text-based side of social networking, Twitter and Facebook were the last two radical ideas: microblogging and adding applications on social websites. MySpace, Netlog, Yahoo360, MS Live.com profiles, hi5, Friendster, Multiply and so on are just glorified versions of FriendFinder.com with some extra features, but they’re not new ideas.

So we need something else 🙂

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