Facebook celebrated its 10th birthday on February 4th, marking a decade of the true ‘first wave’ of social media (apologies to Friendster, Livejournal and Myspace, but a billion users speaks for itself). Since then, there has been no shortage of copycats, both in style and in spirit. In the intervening years, the social space has exploded, with dozens of options for users and investment dollars to follow. Some have focused on photo sharing, some on video sharing. Some have been called social networks for lack of a better term (LinkedIn, meant for capital ‘N’ networking, always seemed out of place being grouped in with the rest; the accessories are there, but the whole doesn’t fit. Like a professor skateboarding to your exam). Some are really just text messaging alternatives masquerading as ‘social networks’ for the accompanying boost in attention. And some, like twitter, exist in their own spheres, unencumbered by logic but addictive as hell.
There are plenty of places to find analyses and predictions for the social space that may or may not be completely off base. My concern is that the focus has become too narrow; too many products have been launched that focus more on media than on truly being social, when the latter matters more.
A trend in recent months has seen an explosion in apps focused on anonymity (this trend was summed up nicely by Ryan Hoover here.) The basic premise of these tools is that we can connect with people we may or may not know, who may or may not know who they’re speaking to, and share our thoughts and feelings. I understand the motivation behind their use: it’s a safe space, with little or no chance of judgment or consequence in saying what’s really on your mind. The comparisons to Catholic confessions are apt.
But is that really the only way we communicate, ‘IRL?’ Of course not. We have heart to hearts with friends, honest if sometimes contentious dinners with family, and sometimes have a great conversation with someone we’ve just been introduced to. These settings aren’t fake, and they don’t force us to hide what we want to say. They bring us closer together, and let us feel like we really know the people around us.
I remember when we first got online in my house. It was an incredible feeling, knowing I could connect with anyone, anywhere. I used chat rooms and ICQ to speak to people of all ages and backgrounds all over the world. While I was probably too young to make any lasting connections there, I started to understand the power of the tools in front of me.
For whatever reason, the power and innovation of online communication never really evolved from there. There is no shortage of ways to speak to friends through text/voice/video, but there aren’t really any meaningful ways to connect to new faces online. Chatroulette made a valiant effort, but live video freaks people out, and after an impressive start it devolved into less than savory activities. reddit allows users to speak about anything, often in long form comments. But without knowing who you’re speaking with, it exists in a vaccuum; it’s difficult to turn an anonymous commenter into a lifelong friend. YouTube’s content creators tried to use video responses to connect with each other, but YouTube’s architecture is not built for video interactions, and it dumped the service due to lack of interest.
I think the technology, and our comfort with it, has now evolved to a point that there is room for a new solution, that mimics dinner table conversations with friends but allows us to have them with a world of people we haven’t met yet. If I can buy a fishing reel from a farmer in Montana, or order a shower curtain from Europe, I should certainly be able to find someone who cares about the same social issues as I do and get to know them in a meaningful way.
Do you think we need tools to allow us to be more social online? Or are we doing well with what we have? Let me know, or tweet at me at @keepfischin.