Lebkowsky on the Economist article on SocNets

Jon Lebkowsky has written a response to The Economist’s article on Social Networks, Everywhere and Nowhere on the Social Web Strategies blog. Money quote:

For months I’ve been saying that Facebook is the next AOL – a gated community that works for a while, but ultimately can’t be open enough to sustain prominence. This is probably true of MySpace, too… at the moment, both systems are growing and capturing mindshare… will this last?

New World HQ for mikel.org


I haven’t mentioned it here yet but earlier this week I signed on to be an anchor member of Montreal’s own Station C co-working space. In the old days, there were desk-rental outfits where people could, for a small fee, go and work back when working at home was not respectable or even possible for most people.

Co-working is different than that. Co-working is explicitly about not only the facilities themselves but the community using the facilities as well. I’ve been discussing this idea with one the founders of Station C, Patrick Tanguay for several years now, and I’m really excited that he and and Daniel Mireault have managed to get Station C off the ground. And even more, that they have succeeded in landing a prime location and doing a top-notch job in terms of furnishings and recruiting. Judging by the list of people I know who will be joining us, it’s going to be a fantastic crew.

Online discussion and the Traditional Media

Journalist Mark Glaser, host and editor of MediaShift, has published a fantastic post: Traditional Media Ready to Elevate the Conversation Online. It’s all about how the so-called mainstream media has been trying to adapt to a media environment in which discussion and audience commentary is ubiquitous. It turns out there is starting to be a bit of a consensus around best practices, though these are far from universal yet.

6A’s LiveJournal Sold!

John Battelle is reporting on his Searchblog that SixApart has sold LiveJournal to SUP, with whom they had entered into a partnership/localization agreement just over a year ago. I don’t know the details, but it makes sense for 6A to have cut LiveJournal loose – the journalling/social networking product doesn’t really fit into their blog-centric and increasingly enterprise-oriented strategy.

Here’s the press release from Six Apart.

“Friending” and human beings

There’s an interesting article in the NYTimes today about the concept of “friends” and social networks: Friending, Ancient or Otherwise. The suggestion in the article is that one of the reasons humans respond so well to online social networks is that they tap into ancient communication and community-forming patterns. I have been writing the same thing about older-style online community for years now (which reminds me, I should collect some of that writing and post it here).

New and Fun from MetaFilter

It’s hardly news, but Matt Haughey (and the team – Josh Millard, Jessamyn West, and Paul Bausch) has build one of the web’s great online communities over the years. In the last little while, they have been quietly adding a raft of really great community-building features.

One example unveiled today: Profile Photos of MeFites – succinctly introduced by Matt: “updated nightly, a dump of everyone’s uploaded profile photo”. Doesn’t seem like much, perhaps, compared to the latest chump-biting app from Facebook (!) or whatever – but the sum of this plus the rest of the new features is far greater than the parts. In a web full of “communities” that seem to be defined as narrowly and shallowly as possible, MetaFilter is a beacon of what the “social web” can be.

On Facebook friend limits

In two recent posts (Facebook sucks, The you-don’t-need-more-friends lobby, Robert Scoble has complained about the 5000-friend limit in Facebook. He said,

[...] it isn’t scalable and falls apart at 5,000 contacts. It pisses me off more and more every day because of that scaling wall.


Someone asked why I keep pointing out the 5,000 friends limit. Why? Because I still haven’t gotten through and I’m still getting pushback from the lobby. So, let’s try one more time.

I agree with Scoble to some extent. The issue is important: scalability, both in terms of network size and application quality across different functions is where sites like Facebook will live or die. Plus, Scoble is an edge case, clearly, and I always think edge cases are important for webapps to take into consideration as they grow and develop.

There is a problem, however, and it is quite simple. The problem is this: Facebook seems to have been explicitly designed to NOT be a rolodex, to NOT scale to thousands of friends per user, and to NOT be an application that scales to the needs of highly-networked businesspeople as a function of their job. I don’t think it’s just a difficult engineering problem that will be overcome with time – it’s intentional. And, more than that, I think that accounts for the success of Facebook.

Facebook’s success isn’t just dumb luck (though there was almost certainly some luck involved). There are lots of other social network sites out there – including MySpace, which is still (arguably) bigger than Facebook. Of course there’s also Friendster, Orkut, Tribe.net, and many more. I’ve been on all of these, and a whole bunch more to boot (more task-oriented sites like Flickr and Shelfari). Facebook, however, is much bigger (for me) that all of these. Why?

  • Facebook has always been popular outside the tech/internet/weblogging crowd. On Orkut and the rest of them I always had the same kinds of contacts/friends. Some YULBloggers, friends who I’ve been in online communities with since the mid-90s, tech/business folks involved in other social networking or web properties, etc. My college roommate? Never. The girl I dated for a few months in twelfth grade? Never.
  • In Facebook, you can’t “collect” friends very easily. This is a huge difference from almost all of the other social networking sites, which explicitly privilege friend collection.
  • It’s easy to say “no” in Facebook. There isn’t even a message to the requester when someone declines a friend request. In some of the older systems, it was a big deal to not accept someone’s request – I suppose they thought that the social pressure to accept requests would grow the network faster. Without that social pressure, though, a paradoxical thing happened: even though it might have slowed the growth of the network, the whole system was non-threatening to non-professional users, who stuck around (in droves).
  • In Facebook, your friends list isn’t the most prominent part of the interface as it was for almost every similar system in the past. Rather, it’s what your friends are doing that’s front-and-center. Having more or fewer friends is simply a way to have more or less “stuff” parading up the screen from hour to hour, day to day. The “social graph” isn’t fundamentally about the list of friends – the social graph is just the conduit to the real content: interaction opportunities with other people.
  • There’s a cost to the user for each friend that they add. Each friend makes it that much more difficult to follow what any one friend is doing. This social cost is important, because although it puts negative pressure on the number of friends a user has in his or her list, it also helps most users to keep their friends list uncorrupted by non-friends who are simply collecting names (like they do in MySpace).

In all of these, there is a common thread: Facebook is expressly NOT there for collectors, it tries to privilege real life relationships as opposed to fleeting acquaintance. Scoble says,

[...]a “friend” in Facebook is NOT a “real friend.” (Let’s define “real friend” for now as someone who you’d invite over to your house for dinner). In social networking software a “friend” is someone you want in your social network. Period. Nothing more. The fact that people assume that you should only have “real friends” in your social network is just plain wrong.

In fact, I think that the distinction between Facebook and the other social networks – and the primary reason for the success of Facebook – is that is about “real friends” or at least is trying to be. MySpace and the rest were about collecting as many “friends” as you could. They were about the scope of the network above all things. Facebook isn’t about the network, but what the individuals in your network are doing: events they are going to, photos they are posting, games they are playing, chumps they’re biting, and all the rest.

Maybe the Facebook engineers were being honest with Scoble and it is just an engineering issue. If so, then they’d better watch it – because anything they do to remove the negative pressure against “collecting” instead of privileging the content over the network for its own sake could be Facebook’s downfall.

I just noticed that

I haven’t yet blogged about one of the most significant things I’ve been involved with on the net for a while: the move of the Café Utne to a new organization and a new server: The New Café. The Café is an online community that opened in 1995 and in the move, we moved over the entire archive of almost 6.5 Million posts over to the new server. There’s quite a bit of work to do yet – branding, capacity-building, and such, but that’s in the hands of a very capable General Manager so I expect all to go well in the coming weeks, months, and years.

Kottke on comments

and busy or high-profile websites: High volume flow. This is a problem with weblogs in general. Everyone has been touting them as the next generation in online community, which is true, but not because of the comments sections, though ironically this is the feature that most resembles traditional online communities such as the Well or Cafe Utne. The weblog world is community-like because of the give-and-take between and among “peer” weblogs via links-and-commentary posts, and it is in that respect that the weblog world is and encourages online community. The existence or not of the ability to comment has little to do, in my opinion, with the community-ness of weblogs.

The solution to the problem is simple and has existed for much longer than weblogs have existed: old-school online communities such as those mentioned above, with mandatory registration, active, consistent moderation, and persistent membership over time such that individuals have a social motivation to behave.


Does anyone know how/where to download a copy of MetaPhilter? There’s a project I want to do and I am curious to see if it will do the trick or if I should try something else.