The Future of Social Networking: A Video Gaming Analogy

In a recent post I talked about what I perceive to be the technical future of social networking. Coincidentally, around the same time as my post, a news storm began surrounding a new programming project called Diaspora, where four guys from NYU have been able to raise ~$20K to fund a, “code sprint,” this summer to build what they call a distributed social network. It is in fact almost exactly what I called for in my own blog post, it is what others have been predicting besides myself, and I think based on the fact that they raised the money in less than two weeks, everyone in the social tech scene seems very happy to at least give these guys a shot.

This clamor for change and the resulting potential technical implementation remind me a lot of other trends we see in society. In this case, the evolution of social networking generally seems to model the evolution of Big Media products and specifically the evolution of video gaming. How so? Let’s see if I can convince you. And then hopefully, with a model under our belts, we can better predict the future of social networking. Up front, one of the glitches of the analogy (and no analogy is ever perfect) is that video gaming in some respects is adopting technical components of social networking. A sort of recursive system?

When social networking began, it started off with small websites that had cult followings and no one was quite sure what it was meant to be, this being the same for almost every new and different product or service. At this stage, I consider social networks to be like arcades at the beginning of the video game revolution. No one was quite sure what they were nor why individuals were wasting their time there. But eventually these networks grew, as did the arcades. Where we stand today is at the golden age of the monolithic social network just as we had a golden age of arcade gaming. The infrastructure is expensive to provide entertainment for the masses and thus large businesses must provide it, similar to arcade gaming where each cabinet would cost upwards of thousands of dollars, and thus large companies had to provide the entertainment.

Over time however, the technology and the design patterns of social networking have come to the surface. “Friending,” “following,” “liking,” “interests,” and “profiles,” are all becoming common place. With the abstraction of the supposedly unique qualities of social networking we have an increasing distribution of them. Social-based niche sites such as LinkedIn and Last.fm are arising, utilizing social principals but to complete different tasks than simply socialize. This if akin to the distribution of arcade cabinets and pinball machines to establishments aside from video game arcades themselves. Other types of businesses have realized the value added, the fact that regular people are enjoying this new-fangled concept, and though the infrastructure is still a tad pricey to implement, the results make the investment worthwhile.

Now we come to the day when people are clamoring to be able to, “play from home.” It is the masses that will drive the movement. They have had their taste of social networking, they have played pinball at the bar and they want more. But to go to a site like Facebook or MySpace, to go to the arcade itself, to have to conform to some other organization’s or corporation’s standards can be a detriment to the experience. Private, home access is the desired method the ultimate experience. Atari helped bring video games into the home where they flourished, far surpassing the monolithic arcade model and in fact killing it. Will the same happen with due to Diaspora? Will the social-networking diaspora model the video game diaspora? How many times do I get to use the word diaspora?

If it is the case, the social companies don’t necessarily have anything to fear. Just as Atari and Sega reinvented themselves (several times) to stay afloat, the Facebooks and Myspaces of the world can do just that. I personally have nothing against Facebook as a company, or against its founders. I just don’t like the privacy model and it may become too much for me to take. If Facebook were to provide a product that better suited my needs, I would gladly consider it. Until then, we have the kids taking a chance, and the people funding them. It will be interesting to see where it all goes.

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3 responses to “The Future of Social Networking: A Video Gaming Analogy

  1. Suzie

    Interesting analogy!

    I, too, am interested in alternatives.

    Your idea, and Diaspora’s, actually more closely mirror the initial appeal (at least for me) of Facebook – a tightly knit, closed-off community of friends/family/acquaintances who are protected by the confines of “friending.”

    The big challenge, however, would be getting the average social network user to get on board – that means not-so-tech-savvy mom and dad, etc. Especially if they’d have to pay for the turnkey version of the network. You might convince one or two of them to make the switch, but if most of their friends stay on Facebook, it would seriously limit its usefulness.

    Facebook’s monopolistic nature ensures that just about anyone who is social networking is on there, making it more convenient for everyone to keep their contacts in one place (and harder to migrate them all somewhere else).

    I’m not quite sure how you would pull everyone away from something they’ve grown so accustomed to (and is free).

    It’s like shopping at Wal-mart – the selection stinks, but it’s what the masses want.

  2. I am less worried about moving people off the, “monolithic,” site and more worried about providing the alternatives. I am a firm believer of, “if you build it, they will come.” In order to move people, you need to provide a better solution, and besides, if we arbitrarily apply the rules of diffusion to the situation, particles (and people?) are constantly moving to areas of less density anyways!

    Examples of this diffusion towards better services include the original shift from MySpace to Facebook, or going back farther, the movement from AOL’s walled-garden approach towards The Internet to a much more free-form, browser-and-URL-based approach.

    And don’t forget, Wal-Mart itself is just the next iteration of department stores, which have their own history stretching back to the 1800’s!

    As far as I am concerned, there is a lot of refinement still to go with social networking technologies, and Facebook as we know it now will change and its competitors will rise up to challenge it further. And eventually people will migrate to whichever service suits them best.

  3. Suzie

    I was thinking precisely of the MySpace to Facebook migration when I posted my comment. When people were leaving MySpace, it was because they had something to move to. So, yeah, you’re right – they need to have somewhere to go first, and it has to be better than what they have now.

    But I wonder, has Facebook grown so much that it’s just too hard? MySpace, though popular, obviously wasn’t the giant Facebook now is.

    However, the whole Facebook privacy fiasco has been stirring up a lot of resentment. Perhaps now is a good time for an alternative to emerge.