in social networks, tech

Problems with Social Networks

Image Courtesy Anne Helmond

A little poem to start the post –

Social networks everywhere,

But not one worthy of our time…

S.T. Coleridge’s poem, “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” fits so many cases in real life that it is impossible to not be tempted to adapt it here. The case, of course, is that of the hundreds of social networks that pop up every day on the web, on mobile platforms and in our email inboxes.

From Path and Everyme in iOS to Facebook and Google+ on the web and Twitter, practically everywhere, social networks are fast becoming the only reason most people use the Internet. But are these social networks and their user experiences satisfying? Not in the very least. Here are some of the issues around the social networks I use –

1. Twitter – Great network. I use it the most. But the mobile apps? Infantile! Twitter’s power comes from discovering new ideas and perspectives regarding the topic’s close to heart but the mobile app is too basic. Only now, at the time of writing, is Twitter itself realizing the value of “Discovery” and is promoting it. But how? By weekly emails! How about changing that and bringing people to your apps again? Twitter has a plethora of apps and services around it that make it very powerful but all of it is third-party, there is nothing that Twitter directly owns that provides high value to SEO, to power users and to those very interested in learning a lot about their interests.

One more thing. In essence, Twitter is not a complete network. It doesn’t directly have tools to manage meetings, events and groups of friends. It is a broadcasters sweet dream but a normal person’s nightmare. Some thoughts are thus best left off Twitter.

2. Facebook – What should be said about this social network? Wildly popular, with a Fearless Leader at its helm who seems to not care about what the world thinks, as long as they are willing to share it on the network. Perhaps with this IPO, Zuckerberg will go the Steve Jobs way, will get kicked out and will one day return to make a great company. Till then, we have to bear with buggy web and mobile apps, instantaneous changes to the layout and functionality of the site with no prior intimation (they’ve actually improved on this recently) and no clear way to be heard by the engineers who design the behemoth (I actually have a friend in there, I don’t think that helps).

Facebook, of course, is so famous because of the millions of people on it. It is the first thing most people turn to every morning, hoping to see cute babies, funny videos, get invited to parties and bitch about life. It is the slayer of Orkut and MySpace (I, of Asian decent, do know Orkut, it was my first social network) and is the champion of a million photos shared. It is also the most complete social network, with groups, events, push and SMS notifications and connections to websites all over the web through its various login methods. Did I mention the extremely complex privacy settings? Oh, it has that too…

3. Google+ – This is one hell of a joke. It is called a social network but is mostly referred by its other name – Ghost Town. It’s practically devoid of normal people. Who are the early and probably only adopters? Ans – Geeks, Google lovers, Android developers, Photographers pulled in by the promise of “Unlimited free image storage” (which, BTW, Facebook also offers) and people looking to interact with the few famous people on the network. Google+ started off as a pretty exact replica of Facebook with a couple of new ideas thrown in. Ideas like group video chat and being able to interact with Robert Scoble. But that’s where it all ends. Even now, when the network says it has changed a lot, it looks pretty much the same. The innovations and iterations remind me of all the changes Yahoo! did only too often when trying to compete with Google Search. Let me remind everyone, Yahoo failed.

Google has been trying since a long time to get social networks right. This is heading towards their shelf of failed experiments, if not today then some day. Until then, I’ll enjoy the unlimited photo uploads. But, one last thing. At least Facebook’s mobile apps all follow the blue color scheme. The Google+ iOS app? A weird-looking app with no sense of user interaction and a painful way of showing posts.

4. Path – Most of you have not heard about this. (I’m lying, you’ve heard and ignored it.) It is a child of the “Oh, I can also make an app for iOS” mentality. The app is beautiful and easy to use. It is very impressive and I sincerely hope Facebook or Google buys it and just replaces their own apps with this one. The problem with this one? None of my friends use it. In a sea of friends, I’m one geek and I’m sure there are millions of such friends circles out there. So obviously, Path has a user base of few. What’s more, the app has virtually no web presence and the Android app was launched pretty much as an afterthought.

Path is a great app, no doubt. But a social network, it is not. I might be an anomaly, you’d say, because you have friends on Path. But then I’d ask you the simple questions – Are you a geek? Do you know someone who has an iPhone but is not on Path? You’ll realize that your answers hold the key. Add to that, the bad press that Path got recently for not handling customer privacy properly and you’ll get another ghost town.

5. Everyme – This, I’m sure you’ve not heard about. It’s a social network based on the iOS that is really not social at all. Path, knowing that they must depend on Facebook and Twitter for popularizing their app, allowed people to share thoughts and pictures with their closed circle of Path friends but also their larger Facebook and Twitter friends communities. Everyme started with the idea that you as a customer aren’t really social. You do not want to broadcast your ideas and you don’t like that your friends on Facebook find out about your life. So, everything is closed. Whatever you share is shown only to your Everyme friends and no one else in the world. I wonder what their business model is, “We’ll not find out anything about our customers and we’ll not have any data to sell to the non-existent companies that don’t want to advertise with our anti-social network”?

Everyme came out after Path and seems to be a replica. But they’re one step ahead of Path. Of course, they have an Android app, I was referring to the measly web app they’ve made. Really, I have absolutely NO friends on Everyme and every time I open their skeletal web app, it just makes me sad. There goes that success story! On a more serious note, if I had friends on Path, I’d not go for Everyme anyways.

6. So.cl – Microsoft finally opened up this website to the masses recently. Notice I didn’t call it a social network. That’s because it’s not. It is not a competition for Facebook, Google+ or Twitter. It is just an experiment that someone in Microsoft Research thought would be cool, “A four letter website? Cool!!!”

So.cl is actually social search based off Bing. It has some interesting features like video parties that is based on YouTube video lists and public chatrooms and a Twitter style public feed. In fact, the stress is not on a user’s own thoughts but on their searches. But what’s wrong? The interface is bland and uninspired and the feel of the site is similar to Facebook. What’s the coolest thing? You can login to the site using your Facebook account. Shows that this is not a social network that is competing with anyone else.

There are many other social networks out there. Some based only on web or mobile and others with a plethora of apps everywhere. Most are facing empty database rows because Facebook overshadows everyone. Some others have innovated and have gained users but are stuck in bad interface designs. Let’s hope some of the issues I’ve highlighted help the social networks out there to understand the things they need to fix to be a little more successful.