This short essay was first posted to my original blog on August 7, 2008.
I have a fairly complex social graph (or social graphs, if that’s the right way to look at it): there’s the obvious work, family, friends breakdown; but I’m also an avid photographer and I play sand volleyball four days a week. And outside of work there’s really industry, comprised of people in my field I keep in contact with on a regular basis, and not necessarily about work-related things.
A number of tools help me stay in touch with everyone: email, IM, text messaging, social networks, blogs and so forth. I can see them in person too– I run into my volleyball friends regularly on the courts, and I sometimes play board games with fellow game industry folk.
Here’s my concern: the communities I am a part of are defined by my social graph and do not map well to the structure of the web.
Take photography, for example. I have my flickr site, flickr groups, photo news sites, online stores I regularly buy gear from, photo-centric blogs and the social network pages of other photographers. Not to mention my own blog, portfolio and Facebook pages. At any one of these locations I might participate in a discussion about photography (or about anything else but with people who share a common interest in photography). Do I really need to monitor a dozen different locations to connect with other photographers, particularly when many of the same people are monitoring the same sites?
The photography community I am part of is content-centric, not location centric. It’s not well defined — the edges are very soft. I might have eight online locations in common with one photographer, but only six with another and maybe four shared between the three of us. The way the web is structured now, I have to pick a couple places and because I can only monitor so many, I’m forced to cut out a number of others. And along with that I lose a number of folks who may partly but not entirely overlap.
I’d like to see a product that treated the internet as subservient to the content communities I am a part of. Something that layered on top of the web and viewed it through a community lens: where are the people in my social graph(s), what are they talking about, how can I chat with them without having to take the conversation to one particular place. For that matter, who else is at the same site as I am, whether I know them or not, that I can talk to about this temporary, shared experience we’re both having (i.e. the news / game / video / etc we’re both looking at).
Intentionally or not, a wide range of companies are circling around this issue: site-centric mini-worlds (Lively, Rocketon), browser replacements (Flock), shared browsing experiments (Medium, BumpIn), fancy IM clients (IMVU, vSide), and so forth. Even Twitter, social networks, mashups and stuff like Delicious and Digg probably qualify. All of these products have, at best, a nice solution to a piece of the problem.
However, I suspect the reason most of those products fail to meet our larger content community needs is that they ask us to exchange our current method of social communication for something new. But in their desire to change how people interact on the web, they hamper or disregard things that already work really really well. Take Rocketon. Here’s a cool idea: avatar chat with others who are at the same web page. Visitors can even move around the page in a kind of temporary 2d space. Except they cannot interact with the page itself in any way — which was the whole reason for being were here in the first place (yes, you can toggle Rocketon off to get to the page, but then you lose the chat).
There isn’t one single way I interact with a particular community (content centric or not): I read, browse, select, chat, comment, show off, save, contribute, modify, buy, sell, etc. What’s missing from today’s community products is a way to bring these varied interactions together around the common interest (i.e. the context) of my social graph. But I can understand why no one’s done it yet– it’s a far more difficult problem than just ditching everything and proposing a new interface paradigm.
Of course, many of these businesses aren’t even concerned with my so-called content community problem — Facebook, Delicious and smaller products like IMVU are quite successful and have no need to go in this direction. But they could be so much more if they did.