Facebook, Linkedin, Google+, Twitter and the rest, are usually referred to as “social networks”. They aren’t.

It’s no mystery that the first broadly used web browser was called (Netscape) “Navigator”, and its largest competitor “Explorer”.Our perception of the Web (and the Internet in general), was spatial —“cyberspace”. That’s why we called them Web “sites”, that’s why we have a “home” page.

Some years ago, the tech industry set out to redefine our perception of the web. Facebook (and other similar sites) grew at amazing rates and their reasonable focus on the “social network” and the “social graph”, made “social networks” the new kid on the block.

But even though the connections of each individual user are his social network, these sites are not social networks. They are social networking places.

This is an important distinction. They are places, not networks. Much like your office, school, university, the place where you usually spend your summer vacation, the pub where your buddies hang out or your hometown.

We obviously create social connections (and a social network) in each one of these “real-world” places. We call them our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues, our relatives.

But you probably wouldn’t go with your parents to the pub where you usually get wasted with your buddies, and you usually don’t hang out for a beer with your boss at your father-in-law’s house —unless they are both the same person :-) And, usually, even if you have a great relationship with your colleagues, you’d rather spend your vacations at a place without them.

In the unfortunate event that these networks overlap spatially, we usually try to move one of our networks to an other place —as a teenager, you’d probably pick a new place, if your parents started showing up where you usually hang out with your friends.

If we consider Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Google+ and the rest social networking sites, places, user behaviours make much more sense.

For example, the reason most users use/need more than one of these places. Because they prefer to keep their social networks separated: They want to share their kids’ photos with friends, and they want to share content that’s related to their work (and probably boring for their friends) with their professional network. They want to make jokes with their old high school friends and they don’t want these jokes to be on the same place where their boss hangs out.

It also explains why (as far as I know) teenagers usually prefer to use only one of these places. Because their social network has fewer dimensions, usually two: family and school. And we know that when parents and teachers start using one of these places, teenagers move the one network they can, their friends, to a new place.

Facebook and Twitter offer “lists”: a way to group other users and (depending on the service) treat them in different ways. For example, when you split your Facebook friends in lists like “family”, “friends” and “work”, you can decide if what you share next will be visible to all or some of them. I only have empirical data to back this up, but I think these features are overlooked by most users. And it’s not that most users tend to explore only the basic UI features. I believe that the real reason is they want to have a clear “spatial” separation —“this is not the place to share or say this”.

And probably this is why Facebook groups (sometimes closed/secret) have wider adoption: instead of deciding “who” to share something with (privacy controls and lists), users prefer to decide “where” to share it (at a Facebook group).

Social networking sites like to pretend they are “the network”, or at least “a network” —and that’s why they’ll ask you to “join”. But as users, deep down, we know they are places —we’ll go there to meet some of our social connections, or even make new ones, and talk and share our thoughts and stories, and we’ll leave if the place gets too crowded, or if we don’t like the people that frequent it. And we’ll tell our friends of this “cool new place”, or ask them if they’ve found a new place if they stop showing up.


[*] photo by Pat Guiney