I, Technology: Can I be the first to say the ‘social network’ is dead?

So Facebook has announced a new data centre, the latest in a series of moves to keep on a par with Google, even as the two companies continue to ladle new features into their social collaboration platforms, all the while trying to steer clear of breaking any patents. While the trolls are probably rubbing their hands together in glee, not everybody is quite so thrilled. From the punter’s perspective it feels like the Microsoft vs Lotus vs Wordperfect bloatware wars all over again – while the gorillas are scaling out and stockpiling functional inventory, those sitting on the other side of the computer screen are left bemused, confused and in some cases downright cross at all the new capabilities they never asked for.

Back then of course, people had to wait for release dates before we could rail against the burgeoning floppy-loads of function. These days, it sometimes appears, capabilities get added or removed on a nightly basis without warning. Insiders talk about this-platform-versus-that-platform and measure popularity in terms of numbers of active users, or home page settings, or messages passed with the inevitable consequence that quantity, not quality is the driving force. Who cares if people don’t like the experience – to win means getting the most points.

Meanwhile, what started as a clever way of interconnecting individuals and passing simple messages is becoming a godforsaken mulch. Pioneer of clean communications, Twitter has maintained a reasonably simple interface, sticking to its microblogging guns and keeping its share of the headlines – but isn’t yet earning megabucks. Facebook and Google, each in their own way masters of experiment, are trying just about every possible combination of options for sharing of messages, content and services, pushing the boundaries of both legality and acceptability along the way.

And meanwhile meanwhile, everybody and their dog is queuing up to offer “new and exciting” ways of connecting, collaborating and generally becoming a downright nuisance to the people they count in their networks. We’re all guilty of a global affliction of over-sharing, exercising the multichannel equivalent of using every shape and sized arrow on the drawing palette, with only the excuse that everyone else is doing it. Me too.

Whatever is emerging from the frog-in-a-liquidizer mess, it isn’t social networking. It’s a cacophony of comments, a fire hydrant of feedback, an endless sump of suggestions for what we should be reading, watching, listening to, connecting with. Current signals indicate that it’s only going to get worse: the lines are drawn for a ponderous march forward, with the big players creating increasingly complex environments which we will all continue to use, despite the growing nag that it wasn’t what we signed up for. Not a Tower of Babel; more the shifting sands upon which no castle can be built.

And then, the oh-so-smarterati will say “social networking is dead.” They’ll cite the losers, referring back to Myspace and Bebo, recognising the falling rolls of active users, and saying it was all so predictable. They’ll be wrong – it wasn’t predictable, and social networking won’t be any more dead than it was when it was the latest big thing. In the tech industry we’ve seen it so many times – the relational database management system; the client server, or the service oriented architecture; the mainframe or personal computer. All were dead long ago, and have been, repeatedly, ever since.

But technology doesn’t die. Rather, it stops offering interesting opportunities for venture capitalists and media types who want to be wed to the next big thing. These are trophy technologies, to have hanging on your arm at parties, wearing something smart and with a good set of teeth. Truth is, to say, “So-and-so technology is dead,” is a euphemism for it finding its place in the substrate of infrastructure. In other domains we might say tarmac is dead, or push-joints for plumbers. They’re not dead, they just got boring when everyone else started to use them.

Social networking will never die, not as such. However, if there’s one thing we can learn from Facebook’s latest move it’s that the future is about providing a comprehensive platform for sharing, communicating and indeed other services, integrating what we currently call ‘social’ facilities along the way. In themselves, such capabilities don’t actually deliver anything – to continue the plumbing analogy, they offer fantastically simple to use, internationally available, amazingly real-time, multimedia pipework.

The rest is down to us – and the irony is, we’re currently spending our days using such tools to talk about what we might do, rather than getting on with doing it. The world hasn’t seen a better procrastination device since the invention of toe clippers. There will come a time, however, where people want to get on with their jobs, and will no doubt be happy to use social tools to support the communications they need to get the job done.

On this basis, what we may soon see the back of is “the social network”. Or at least, the recognition that such a thing exists. It doesn’t – in the hyper-connected global village that we are becoming, relationships exist because they really exist and exhibit social facets by their nature, not because they are programmed into such tool. Or, to put it another way, just because Arnold Schwarzenegger is following me on Twitter, that doesn’t mean I should be waiting by the hyperspatial door mat for a dinner invitation.

In the future, as socially-enabled services start to supersede social for its own sake, Facebook becomes simply another software as a service provider with as much in common with, say, Salesforce.com as Google or Microsoft. Indeed, looking at the latter company’s portfolio and how it is evolving, it’s not hard to see what any such company should look like a few years from now. But while social networking might have been the big innovation of its time, future innovation will take place outside of the technology echo chamber, in a world where social tools are seen as just that – tools.

Don’t get me wrong, high-tech has enormous power to support genuine advances in creativity, healthcare, achievement, wellbeing. Even something as simple as information sharing can have a quite profound impact, as we have seen in several cases already this year. While the social networking behemoths continue their slow march into the sand, we can only hope that a solid platform emerges that truly can be built on in the future.

[This blog was first posted on ZDNet]


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