December 29, 2004


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Two ideas, diametrically opposed in philosophy and approach, have seized the attention of Internet companies and technologists over the first few years of this century. Given that the century will be so long and we have barely started yet, it’s hard to say what will turn out important. But these two ideas are attracting both money and attention. One stresses classification, the other community. Neither has borne much fruit yet.

The first idea goes by such names as the "semantic web"—coined by Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web—and "Web Services." It leads to infinite meetings of standards bodies, taking up hours of valuable technologists’ time, who report year after year on the tremendous progress they are making toward ever receding and ever more audacious goals.

The other idea goes by the name "social networking," and brings out breathless talk of a revolution in social relationships, supposedly to be opened up by "frictionless connectivity": the ability to find almost instantly the person who can meet your specific personal or career-related needs.

After several years of experiments in each area, outlines are emerging for the domains where each idea may prove valuable. Web Services, for instance, can save time and money wherever organizations have formalized relationships, such as companies placing routine orders for goods. The reasons that Web Services do not play a more disruptive role—the reasons they cannot deliver the whole world to one’s screen through standardized search techniques—will be discussed in this article.

Even more interesting is the role social networking can play in doing exactly what Web Services would like to do and cannot: connect Internet users with new goods and services. The public has mostly lost interest with the first wave of sites that offer social networking, probably because what they offer seems to add little except extra overhead to current Internet services such as email and newsgroups. (Ironically, they are anything but frictionless.) Still, because we have all used real-life networks and know they’re important, one can feel fairly confident that online networks will unlock the door to success—once someone finds the magical combination of factors and makes it click into place.

The limitations of Web Services can be illustrated by the problems faced by some companies I’ve talked to over the years who want to provide easy, instant product searches over a range of companies and offerings. For instance, suppose you you want a phone with a built-in camera. You enter a few search terms into one of these services, or pull down a menu that lists that item. A table pops up showing a dozen products, their prices, and various specifications such as screen resolution. Within seconds you know the cheapest product that meets your needs.

These online services, in short, are trying to allow frictionless competition. They’re also an intriguing answer to the claim that the Internet will "disintermediate" commerce, removing all middlemen and putting the consumer directly in touch with the manufacturer.

How does a service pull off this feat? Technically, they provide member companies with templates (probably in the form of XML schemas) that are filled out for each product. Organizationally, the creation of such schemas requires meetings of high-level personnel to determine what features are listed, what units they’re measured in, and how to determine whether products live up to their claims.

And that’s where the problem with the whole idea comes in. Cameraphones are currently one of the fastest-growing areas of electronic consumer devices, but a few years ago it was the stuff of spy movies. Any company working on such a product would have no interest in discussing it with competitors. It would be laughable to ask companies to add fields for cameras to a telephone XML schema, or fields for a telephone to a camera XML schema. Getting them all to agree on specifications for a schema would take years—long after the marketing would begin.

The hottest items—whether in consumer devices, books, movies, or whatever—cross the boundaries of product specifications. They’re not incremental changes. They’re hot because they’re different, and being different means ipso facto that they can’t be classified by the old schemas.

That will be more and more the case in an innovative society. And an innovative society is what we need most, because we have big problems to face.

Here comes in social networks. These are precisely where people hear about new things that would make their lives better or just enhance their prestige. The networks also validate that one product rocks and another is lame. I explored this idea in my article The Semantic Web: It’s Whom You Know.

No wonder companies chase after viral marketing, looking for ways to leverage the reports of early adopters and harness social networks to create buzz for their products. Viral marketing appeals to companies because it’s an extremely cheap form of advertising, but it also draws on a trust that customers give to their friends and peers while withholding from vendors. (The days when we implicitly trusted Bayer, General Motors, or GTE are long gone.)

Another alternatives to traditional advertising and promotion is free-form search, which disdains the formal classifications of XML schemas. It assumes that, if a person and a product are searching for each other, they’re statistically likely to eventually hook up. This philosophy lies behind not only search engines on the Web but collaborative filtering, such as the famous feature that tells you what the most popular books are among other people who read a given book.

But social networks are yet more powerful than collaborative filtering and search engines, because of the trust factor.

That’s just the beginning of the creative use of social networking, though. It’s quite possible that new forms of creativity and community will arise on the Internet, using networks. The Internet is well-poised for new media that will blend art, literature, gaming, political expression, and community-building. This idea was introduced in my article Stop the Copying, Start a Media Revolution.

People in this medium might seed a project with a creative work of their own and ask others to build on it. Additions and changes could be rated along such criteria as Most Creative, Most Emotionally Moving, Most Realistic, Funniest, and so forth. The best solution would emerge through popular vote. Traditional copyright limitations would be suspended for these collaborative, ever-growing expressions.

Fast file sharing systems such as BitTorrent could be used to update people’s individual versions of the projects; even better, such peer-to-peer systems might evolve into wildly flexible environments where each participant stores what he or she is working on locally and then combines all relevant parts by downloading the rest of them from other participant’s computers.

So where does that leave the current social networks? Friendster, LinkedIn, Orkut? They boast huge numbers of members, but I’ve heard little to show for it.

The basic idea behind current systems is that you sign up and provide some background information on yourself. Then you encourage people you know to sign up too, and indicate that they’re your "friends." A friend on Friendster is different conceptually from a real-life friend; it basically reflects the architecture of the software and means you can reach this person directly.

By contrast, you have to reach this person’s other "friends" through a second contact, and the friends of the friends through three contacts. An online social network therefore allows people to determine how much they trust someone by how many friends they have to go through in order to reach the other person. This is the mushy concept of "degrees of separation" turned into a network protocol.

I expect most members of online social networks are as inactive as I am, having tried them out and been unimpressed. For one thing, these networks are technologically rudimentary. They rely heavily on email, which is a reasonable place for a new medium to begin because it’s universal among Internet users. But how primitive email appears next to other ways of communicating! Spam is just one example of its security and privacy problems, and it also suffers from structural looseness, problems in addressing (people often have to switch their addresses), and other weaknesses. Eventually, to really take off, social networks should provide alternatives to email rather than relying on it.

Second, the current offerings of social networks are imitations of things already available on the Internet: newsgroup, searches, and chat. There’s nothing here you can’t get elsewhere. The draw is not what you do on the social network, but whom you have a chance of doing it with.

This leads to the third major problem I’ve found with social networks: they make contacts more difficult instead of easier. Yes, broadcasting to friends of friends is trivially easy, so much so that I’ve tried to avoid checking my account because there’s so many irrelevant messages (often in languages I can’t read). But if I want to target someone for a specific purpose, I find it much easier to use a search engine or a private network of informal contacts than to go through the slow and unreliable process provided by the social network.

I find that the "degrees of separation" concept becomes meaningless after the second degree of separation. Furthermore, the concept is not rich enough to reflect the many different ways I know and care about people. I feel more comfortable forming communities the old-fashioned way, by inviting people to shared forums, either online or face-to-face.

These criticism apply to social networks they way they’re currently implemented. Because viral marketing and new media have an excellent possibility of becoming important social movements, I think online social networks will grow in importance, and at some point somebody will make one that works. We can also move to yet another stage where we statistically measure our network and learn from aggregate facts about the people we know. There’s plenty there for a century of innovation.

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