The next generation of social networks, Part 2: The components of social networks and the potential of all that information

A few days ago, I wrote the first article in a series on the future of social networks. Last time, I framed it within Web 3.0. If you haven’t read part one, a quick recap of Web 3.0: Web 3.0 (or whatever buzzword you like) is about taking the information we have on the internet, in we are currently sharing with each other, and using and integrating that data in order to solve problems.. At least, that’s how I define Web 3.0.

Facebook, MySpace, and current social networks are great for sharing, but still haven’t been used to solve many problems beyond boredom. By problems, I mean anything that will help save individuals or society save time, money, or energy. I not only mean solving global warming, but the problem of your computer breaking down or your food being too expensive and taking too long to cook.

The Components of a Social Network

First, though, I need to break down the components of a social network. The interaction between the main components of a social network are what make them tick. Robert Scoble, in an article about Facebook not allowing Google to access its information via Google’s FriendConnect, does most of the breakdown for me. And yes, I split information into three components. You interact in completely different ways with each, so it makes sense to me.

The Components

  • Your Personal Information: This is the info you willingly put into a profile. Name, age, likes and dislikes, phone number, relationships, work and educational info, etc.
  • Your Friends’ Information: This is the info all of your friends put into their profiles. You have access to most of your friends’ information
  • Strangers’ Information: This is the info anyone outside of your social graph. Unless you are Facebook friends with me or work at Facebook, you probably don’t have access to this information.
  • Your Social Graph: This is perhaps the most important component of a social network. This is the actual map of who your friends are and your relationship to them and to their friends. This is how Facebook knows both you and Jimmy are friends with Nancy, or that you might know Eric. It tells who is 2 degrees away from you (friend of a friend) or 3 degrees away (friend of a friend of a friend). See the picture above? That’s part of my social graph, specifically who is connected to who.
  • The Interface: That would be how you see this information. That’s or This also includes things like Developer platforms, so I include Facebook and other 3rd party social networking applications in this component.

It’s the interaction between these components that allows for you to find friends and keep connected. But it’s also the interaction that could allow for an integration of this data in order to solve problems and make life easier.

What can all of that Information do?

Now for the fun part. What can we do with these five components? Let’s try a story example. Say you are a psychologist who is trying to figure out the key characteristics of individuals that become suicidal, especially teenagers and college students. Currently, you take thousands upon thousands of surveys, the answers to which you can never fully rely upon. You pour across data that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars before you come up with your results.

The issues here? The data can’t be fully trusted (someone taking a survey will change answers, even unconsciously, in order to “give” the results they believe the researcher wants), it costs enormous amounts of time and money to get the data, and the same size is still relatively small.

Now, what if you could tap into the likes, dislikes, and behavior patterns of nearly every teenager and college student in the country with a simple program? See where I am getting at yet?

No, it wouldn’t be perfect, since people leave a lot out of their profiles, but this hypothetical researcher would have access to far more information than ever before. Hell, let’s go a step further. You could create an algorithm that highlights a red flag when a user deletes certain information from their profile, adds certain information, changes their behavior with their friends on MySpace and Facebook, etc. It’s not just about the information on a profile: wall posts, the changes to a profile over time, and messaging habits are all important information as well.

I’ve only given you one example. You can collect data with a voluntary Facebook app on energy usage to pinpoint which products need to be made more efficient, you could integrate the information of a social network with your email to prioritize it and filter it, etc. Some of these things are already happening, but a combination of protectionism and a lack of technology hinders these efforts.

But I’m only thinking of today, with what we currently have in our social networks. We, with the help of social networks, are capable of so much more, and that’s what I’ll write about in Part 3.

– Ben

Coming in Part 3: Designing the next social network, plus what it could do to solve problems. (did someone say mobile?)