The same question people used to ask about PCs can be asked of social networks: Were our lives easier or harder, better or worse, simpler or more complex, before they came around? The answer is yes. For some folks, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace seem nearly as indispensable as email, but creating and maintaining these virtual circles of friends turns out to be quite a bit of work, often necessarily so. Here are the ten things that bug me most about today's social networking services.
10. MySpace Kitsch
Unlike Facebook, which adheres to a relatively rigid blue-on-white, three-column design, MySpace lets you decorate your page with background images, themes, and unconventional layouts. That flexibility provides just enough rope for many MySpacers, and the results range from ugly to completely unreadable. Some MySpace pages are so poorly designed that they can crash the hardiest browser--and this alone has caused many social networkers to flee the aesthetic chaos of MySpace for the relative calm of Facebook. Thankfully, some enterprising script authors have come up with scripts that tone down the MySpace bling and clutter: One of my favorite MySpace scripts puts a button on the screen that turns custom page styles on and off with a single click.
9. The Worms Crawl In
8. LinkedIn Is UpTight
Almost anything goes on MySpace, but not so on LinkedIn, where the strictly-business motif discourages personal expression outside of a photo (a fairly recent innovation), a status line, and standard résumé entries. Sure, the whole point of LinkedIn is to put your most professional foot forward, but really, LinkedIn, couldn't we loosen the necktie just a little? LinkedIn may never support psychedelic backdrops or party photos, but it could do a lot more to help you project something more than an utterly antiseptic persona.
7. Mobile Social Networking Still Kinda Weak
Imagine receiving real-time, location-based status messages from your friends as they make the rounds of the local bars and restaurants. Although Facebook, MySpace, and other services are gradually adding mobile-phone features, that kind of mobile social networking is still just a dream for a number of reasons. First, to be successful, it has to work across multiple wireless carriers and social networks--no easy feat. Second, services such as Dodgeball require you to actively post location updates before your friends can find you. Until GPS-equipped phones can update networks with location information automatically, it's still easier just to call.
6. Ning: Too Much Porn
Ning, which lets you set up your own custom social network, has attracted attention for its ability to create communities that are more functional than those created through competing services from Google and Yahoo. Nonprofits, support groups, and hobbyists have found their homes on Ning. But, as with many new neighbourhoods on the Web, the seedier side of the culture is often the first to move in. As on Second Life, pornography reportedly comprises a significant percentage of the communities Ning hosts. Flickr faces a similar issue, but it shields unsuspecting visitors from seeing adult content through default filters (that is, you must actively opt out of the filter). Ning offers no such setting, which makes the site tough to recommend to schools and families.
5. Do I Know You?
Facebook started out as a way for college students to put faces to names: "Hi, I think we took Poly Sci together last semester, and you're friends with my friend Brittany. Would you be my Facebook friend?" Now that Facebook is a global phenomenon, exchanges can go more like this: "I don't know you, and we have no friends in common. I live in Colorado, you live somewhere far away. And yet you'd like to be my friend and show me your baby pictures. And you want to see mine. Hmmm, let me think about that ... request denied." Not only is it okay to ignore friend requests from people you don't know, your privacy may depend on it.
4. Thanks for the Add! Here's Some Spam
Slightly more annoying than random friend requests from total strangers is the increasing presence at social networking sites of good old-fashioned spam--you know, the kind where somebody is actually trying to sell you something. On Facebook, MySpace, and many other sites, you can expect to receive all kinds of unsolicited commercial and non-commercial requests, promos, and e-mail messages in your inbox. All manner of enterprises, from fledgling rock bands to escort services to professional headhunters, are trying to use these newfangled social network things to drum up business, and that means spam.
3. Breaking Up Is Hard to Do (Too Hard)
Late last year I realised that I'd read one too many inspirational peace, true love, and happiness-through-vegetarianism bulletin posts from some random friend on MySpace, and I decided that I'd had enough. I decided to cancel my account. I wanted to disappear from the scene--to commit "MySpace Suicide." But I quickly found out that it wasn't as easy as clicking a Delete Account button. Perhaps to protect accounts from unauthorised deletion, some services require you to send a formal cancellation request--LinkedIn requires you to contact customer service, for example. MySpace does let you delete your own account, but only if you still have access to the e-mail account you used to set it up. Unlucky for me, I had changed ISPs during my two years of MySpace membership, and I no longer had my old e-mail address. So began a four-week account-cancellation process, culminating in my actually having to e-mail MySpace a picture of me holding a piece of paper with my MySpace user name scrawled on it. I might have been better off just leaving the account active and deleting all the data and content it held.
2. Zombies, Pirates, and Other Pointless Facebook Applications
Facebook applications allow my friends to share their movie tastes, opinions, news picks, and other items with me, but accepting these tidbits requires me to install each corresponding app in my own profile (at which point it has access to my personal information). One app informs me that a friend has just urinated on me, poked me, or vampire-bit me. An alarming number of my female friends want me to know them by their stripper names. Why my friends devote so much time to these curious little apps I haven't figured out, but I know that cumulatively they've begun to demand way too much of my time.
To make matters worse, Facebook applications promote themselves, too, trying to get in touch, and even peppering me with spam. If you're encountering the same thing, you can fight back. To make silly apps go away, open the application invitation and click on the Block [application name] link in the bottom-right part of the window. Or, you can banish all applications from your Facebook experience by installing the Facebook custom app hider Greasemonkey script.
1. Multiple Social Network Syndrome (MSNS)
With the advent of social networking, my e-mail traffic has gotten worse, not better. Here's an e-mail telling me that my brother has sent an e-mail within Facebook. Another message informs me that Susie has updated her profile at Friendster. Another announces that Bob over at FriendNet has just brushed his teeth. Another proclaims that Dave has written the latest instalment of his ingenious blog at MySpace. Somebody at Facebook has just poked me. Someone else has bought some new bling. And on and on and on. To reply or act on any of these events, I'll have to bring up one of the 12 social networks I've been sucked into joining, log in, and then view the ads there. All of that, of course, necessitates a lot of extra clicks and keystrokes, and after a while, I find that I don't really like my friends anymore.
The major social networking sites are very aware of such frustrations, and are taking steps to increase their ability to interact with one another. MySpace recently announced that it will let its users push their bio information out to other sites such as eBay, Photobucket, Twitter, and Yahoo. Not to be outdone, Facebook has announced its own plans to do the same thing with partner sites.
That's all good, but I'm not holding my breath for the day when I can share data and content directly between my MySpace account and my Facebook account. Still, it's a positive sign that the big players are acknowledging that social networking is about bringing folks together online, not confining them inside large walled gardens.