Social Networking Beyond Facebook

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I read this article that predicted the decline of Facebook a little while ago, and I've found myself thinking about not only the future of Facebook, but the future of social networking in general.

When I describe Drupal, and what I do to people who are unfamiliar with the platform I often talk about community features and social networking. These days most people understand the buzzword to some degree, but if they don't I end up recurring to Facebook: "Like Facebook," I say, to near instant recognition. I suspect many of us have had similar experiences. While Facebook is a comfortable touchstone, it's not a particularly accurate description of what social networking is or can be.

Nearly all of the different kinds of sites that we design with Drupal have some "Social Networking Features," which is to say that they all provide tools for visitors to the site to contribute content, discussion, and/or even construct identities on the site via profiles and consistent user accounts. Social networking also covers functionality that allows users to connect to each other in ways that aren't mediated by site administrators (buddy lists, contact forms, private messaging, etc.). This grouping of features can, of course, be applied to most any site. Amazon.com's "product reviews," are social are social networking features; "tell a friend," or "Share it" functionality are social networking features, and of course, sites, like Facebook and MySpace, that let you create user accounts and profiles are social networking sites.

I've taken to thinking of Facebook as belonging to a "create a profile and collect friends" paradigm of sites. This is both the history of the site, and a mode of social networking that's been very hard for Facebook and the reset of the social networking space to grow out of. If Facebook is to survive, the article suggests (and I agree) that it will be because users have decided that facebook is useful as a hub for aggregating activity and content from elsewhere on the web, or as a messaging platform. In the end as it is now, Facebook itself is responsible for generating very little content and once your profile is fully developed and you've collected all of your friends there has to be something else for users to latch onto.

While Facebook's future may or may not be certain, social networking as a factor on the web is. Social networking provides "hooks" for users to participate in websites that in turn provide a stronger incentive for users to return to the site more regularly. These features are really powerful for sites that publish content, and as such, will continue to be presence for a long time.

Nevertheless, Drupal can power full out social networks in the Facebook paradigm. However, in the Drupal world when we talk about Social Networking, it's more likely that we're talking about about how social networking features can augment and enhance websites of all kinds, and provide that extra "something else" to keep users coming back to a site after their network is built, their friends collected, and profile developed.

In light of this, if nothing else it's a really exciting time to be a developer and user of the web, because these kinds of features when integrated with the content of the web, provide users with some really tangible benefits. For future reference and further clarity, When I'm talking about "social networking features," I'm talking about non-connected features that include:

  1. User account registration and profiles,
  2. On site "private messaging,"
  3. Status updates and recording,
  4. Comments and space for discussions,
  5. User generated content and media,
  6. Content sharing and syndication,
  7. On-site user relationships, and
  8. Per-user customization of the site.

While Facebook itself has all of these features, a lot of newer sites may only have one or two of these features alongside a more traditional knowledge-base, ecommerce, or blog content system, can be really powerful and useful for site owners and visitors alike.