Tuesday, November 15, 2005

On Social Networking, Lists, and Search

(I was inspired by a recent blog post by Sacha Chua to finally write down a few ideas I've been sitting on for a while. At least it's a good way to make this blog a bit more active. I doubt these ideas will catch a lot of people's attention, but hey, one guy's flop might cause another's eureka.)

I have accounts in two of the most popular social networking services, namely Friendster and Orkut. Problem is, I rarely use either service nowadays. Why? After using the services to look for friends, both old and new, hoping to "connect" with them and get to know them better, I feel that in the end the "social networks" I've worked on are merely glorified contact lists. Yes, you can say that both Orkut and Friendster offer features that let users know each other better, mainly via the user profiles and the various communications features they offer. I'll talk about the latter in another post. Here I'd like to focus on the problem with the user profile systems of these services, and what I feel could be the solution.

Part I: The Problem
My two main complaints about Friendster and Orkut's user profiles are (1) They aren't very flexible and (2) they are boring. I'll just note in passing that in both cases, Friendster is definitely a lot worse that Orkut. The first complaint involves web forms, which both services ask you to fill up when you sign up. Of course, the creators can't ask you every possible question there is about your personality, interests etc., so they end up asking for the most general sorts of information.

Generalizing your interests into a small set of categories limits the social networking experience. Services like Friendster and Orkut have an often unnoticed potential to allow us to be as open to our close friends as possible. It also has the potential to introduce us to possible future friends, strangers who share our specific tastes. It's a shame that these potentials aren't being tapped because the users are stuck with what the services want them to say and how the services want them to say it.

Another drawback to using a set collection of fields is that it is boring. That's what happens when users aren't allowed to group their lists of information into as many categories as they want; you get too general, you get too vague, you get boring. Orkut fixes this problem a little by featuring a ton of fields and by separating these into three profile pages (the other two are for business and personal info). But the number of fields are still fixed, and so the thirst to share more information is merely dampened. It's not a complete solution.

Part II: The Solution
What we need is a system that allows users to add as much or as little information as they want and at the same time being able to organize this information the way they want. The answer is obviously some type of custom list system. Instead of having a single field for music, for example, you can have a list of your favorite songs, another for your favorite bands, and a couple for the songs and bands that you positively hate. You can be more creative. How about a list of songs that make you feel nostalgic? The more flexible the system is, the more you can get to know your friends better, and the bigger the chance of meeting like-minds.

Custom lists will only be useful in this regard if the system's search feature is good enough to show relevant results. I think Google's Orkut has so much potential because Google's got the most experience in producing Quality Search. Of course, the lists themselves will have to be categorized for advanced search operations. Furthermore, each list should have an access specifier that will limit the people who could view the particular list (Orkut's friend categories might come useful here).

So there you are. My very first big idea that I shared online. There will be at least another one on social networking, but it's not quite complete yet. Tell me what you think of this idea of a social networking service based on custom-made lists. Try implementing it if you think it's good enough, or improve it if you think it's pointing at the right direction. Do whatever you want with it; I'd be glad if my idea gets used somewhere. Ya know, "information wants to be free" and all that.