Getting social networks under control

Social networks. We all use them (to some extent) and there are a lot of them. I appreciate the services they provide and enjoy using them, but it can be hard to not spend too much time and energy micromanaging. For people who use just one social utility there isn’t much of a problem: everything that they do goes into that one environment. However, chances are you use more than one. It’s perfectly fine to keep them completely separated from each other and I’m sure that works for a lot of users. But I personally would like to provide a coherent image of myself across the sites that I do use. As I found out over the weekend, that’s not as simple as it sounds.

The Facebook Factor

Before I talk about how I actually went about trying my social networks, there are a  few things about the networks themselves that need to be said. First off, Facebook is the unstoppable juggernaut when it comes to social networks. I didn’t really think about this until I started out on my quest, but Facebook does (in a limited way) a lot of things which the other social networks individually focus on. Like most other people, you can use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and make new ones. You can post photos to Facebook albums. I haven’t heard any word on limits except being limited to 60 photos per album. There’s also the status line where you can broadcast what you’re doing to everyone who wants to listen. Conversely the newsfeed lets you keep track of everyone else. You can write notes and use them as a lightweight blog. Interesting links and videos you find around the web can also go on Facebook. And everything you do has a chance to become the basis of a longwinded, interactive discussion between your friends.

Facebook’s purpose as a social network is to essentially surround all the other social networking utilities. Posting a video on YouTube or saved an interesting link on Delicious? Put a link to it on Facebook. Wrote a blog post? Post a link to it or have it be automatically mirrored in your notes (learned this trick from a new friend of mine). Want to share photos of your hike with everyone who went with you? Put in a Facebook album, tag your friends and they’ll be automatically notified. No need to decide whether to use Flickr, Picasa, Zooomr or worry about how you’r going to let others know that their photos are up. If you need a place to discuss something, you can start a Facebook group and invite your friends rather than having to set up a mailing list or forum. Though Facebook does all these things decently well, it doesn’t do them quite as well as the other sites that are out there for specifically those purposes. And Facebook is definitely an ‘inside-out’ community: to use it well you need to have a network of friends first. On the other hand, if your goal is to reach out and find new people to connect with, you’re better off using another social site.

Facebook was my first problem. I tend to think of Facebook as a place for connecting with people I already know fairly well. It’s a good way to keep my friends updated on what I’m doing, especially if they aren’t using Twitter or Delicious or following my blog regularly. I really want Facebook to be part of my social network, but since it won’t be directly help me connect with new people, I want to use it passively as much as possible. To be fair, I suppose Facebook could probably be used for ‘reaching-out’ purposes, but I personally don’t want to do that since in my opinion there are better tools for that. Luckily for me, Facebook seems to understand it’s role as an aggregator of sorts: it makes it simple to integrate your blogs as notes and post your Delicious links and shared Google Reader feeds to the newsfeed. So even though most of online activities take place elsewhere, almost all of it is seamlessly mirrored on Facebook for all my friends to see and discuss.

A Network of Networks

The second part of the problem involves the many services that I use. The services that I use most frequently are Twitter, Delicious, this blog, Last.fm and Facebook (not necessarily in that order). I do have a Picasa account, but I mainly use that for sharing pictures with my parents and close family and so it’s not really part of my social net. For a while I really wanted to integrate all this together. The Ping.fm service let me do just that. I could post something to Ping.fm and it would be sent to Twitter and Facebook and any links would be saved to Delicious. Using Twitterfeed I could have blog updates routed to Ping.fm as well. This setup was worked pretty well and there was nothing wrong with the implementation itself. However, I found some flaws in working this way that involved the very concept of trying to pull everything together.

All the services I’ve named above are all very different. That’s probably part of the reason why Facebook only offers generic clones of them (for now at least). Twitter is good at communicating small snippets of information while my blog is for far more detailed writings (my posts are routinely over a thousand words). Using Delicious with Ping.fm allows me to quickly save anything from the web, but I also don’t fully utilize their tagging functionality which helps greatly when trying to find something later. By using Ping.fm to quickly post to everything, I was losing out on the focused functionality that each of them offered.

I found myself faced with a classic dilemma: I wanted people who ‘followed’ me to able to see everything that I did socially, but I also wanted to be able to use the individual social services to their full potential. I found the answer (to some extent) in the form of Friendfeed. It’s an aggregator for all your social content, not entirely unlike the role that Facebook fills. Friendfeed gathers all your activity from as many as 58 service and provides a single unified feed that people can follow and interact with. My Friendfeed collects information from all the services I listed above as well as Google Reader’s shared feeds. In an ideal world, everyone would see my Friendfeed and interact mainly via comments on that (or on the original sources).

However, it’s not an ideal world. In particular, most people I know (and who know me) don’t actually use Friendfeed (unfortunately). To get around the fact that not everyone is going to see the collected feed that I present, the most reasonable solution is to maintain a careful amount of redundancy. I say careful because if I were to simply link everything to everything, not only would people be seeing the same thing many times over, I could also potentially set up infinite loops with messages being propagated from service to service and back ad infinitum. My first step in this careful redundancy setup is to keep Facebook separate. I use its own native integration features to pull information from the other services, but nothing pulls from Facebook. I generate very little original content on Facebook and so it’s mainly just for collection and discussion.

The second step is to take into account the distinctions between the services and use them accordingly. For example, Twitter is used for status updates so it gets used the most. Delicious is used for saving stuff from the web. Previously I had everything that I saved in Delicious appear on Twitter as well (via Ping.fm), but I’ve come to realize that I save a fair of stuff for my research work which I don’t think everyone wants to know. By separating the services, I can only post things which I think people will find interesting to Twitter. I can also use Twitter to elicit responses and feedback from followers while I use Delicious more for classification. I’m also considering moving to Diigo, but that’s a subject for another post. My blog also gets mirrored to Twitter via Twitterfeed because I think that’s an important part of what I want people to know about. Of course, if you are following me on Friendfeed, you will see all my bookmarks and some duplicates. That’s something I’m still working to solve, I’m not comfortable with having my followers see the same things multiple times.

The third and final piece of the puzzle involves Twitter. Though I use it mainly to send out updates to my followers, it also becomes a medium for discussion with people retweeting and replying to what I’ve said. Unfortunately the native Twitter interface isn’t the best for managing a multi-way communication stream and I’ve found that I can miss out on a lot if I don’t pay careful attention. Luckily there are a number of Twitter clients out there that do a good job of managing your Twitter traffic for you. The one I currently use is TweetDeck which provides a nice multi-panel layout for seeing general tweets, replies, mentions of your name and direct messages side by side.

In conclusion, the problem of managing your social networks is still a tricky one to solve and requires some careful thought to get right. Even then, it’s still not a perfect solution by any means (especially if your friends aren’t on the same networks). As time progresses, it’ll be interesting to see how social networks evolve. Facebook in particular is looking to place itself as the center of the social web. Personally I’m not a big fan of having Facebook be the center of everything, but it could have it’s benefits. But for the time being, Facebook does have serious competitors each with their own strengths and there are some things (like this blog) that I would prefer to happen outside any single social network.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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