Position paper on the Future of Social Networking

Shirley Williams, Pat Parslow and Karsten Oster Lundqvist



Social networking mediated by web sites is a relatively new phenomenon and as with all technological innovations there continues to be a period of both technical and social adjustment to fit the services in with people’s behaviours, and for people to adjust their practices in the light of the affordances provided by the technology.

Network effect

Social networking benefits strongly from large scale availability. Users gain greater benefit from social networking services when more of their friends are using them.This applies in social terms, but also in eLearning and professional networks. The network effect provides one explanation for the popularity of internet based social networking sites (SNS) because the number of connections between people which can be maintained by using them is greatly increased in comparison to the networks available before the internet. The ability of users to determine how much they trust information available to them from contacts within their social network is important in almost all modes of use. As sources of information on a range of topics from academic to shopping advice, the level of trust which a user can put in other nodes is a key aspect of the utility of the system.

User Focus

SNS, user-generated content hosting and communal communications media all focus strongly on the user experience, and rely on varying degrees of user competencies. It is important when looking at future developments to consider these factors in parallel with the narrower technological view. As the number of services being provided continues to grow, it is particularly important to recognise that users will often keep accounts with systems they no longer actively use, especially if migrating data between them remains difficult. There is also anecdotal evidence of users increasingly using disparate systems to facilitate communication with different groups of peers, either through explicit choices being made or because they have to subscribe to the services already in use by their friends and colleagues.

This segregation of data poses both opportunities and difficulties. The opportunity to actively maintain different online personae can provide people who occupy multiple distinct roles in life with a way to reflect themselves in the most suitable way for each context. On the other hand, many people find trying to keep multiple identities up to date, even without the problems of having multiple accounts and authentication/credentials, can be taxing on their resources in terms of both time and effort.

The changing tool

With SNS people are starting to use the affordances granted by the data in the system as well as the underlying tool. A single user can take advantage of aspects of these services and gain benefit without having connections with other people through them. However, a user can also benefit from using the tool without contributing to its dataset. From this view, the tool being used is the software plus the data in the system. A productive view of these systems is to regard the software as being a tool for a contributing participant, but for the non-contributor the tool is the whole system (including the data). In reality, of course, most users will experience a mixture of activities with any of these services, which means that they will use the data populated software as a tool, but also modify that tool by adding and modifying the data within it. This suggests viewing the user experience with the services as being one which is best viewed in the context of a form of Activity Theory. Social, technological and individual user issues must all be taken into consideration when analysing or designing systems which change as they are used.

People in multiple roles

People typically occupy multiple roles within their communities. Although some SNS have rules against multiple accounts, users can, and do, set up different ones to reflect different aspects of themselves. For instance, we have evidence of a number of people having multiple Facebook accounts in order to maintain a separation between professional and social aspects of their lives, and in some cases multiple ‘professional’ accounts to provide different views of themselves to different groups of colleagues. The role based nature of our interactions with others is perhaps most often noticed when we make a categorisation error, and assume the wrong context. A simple example is a pupil at school making that embarrassing mistake of calling the teacher ‘Mum’ or similar, but with the rather more persistent nature of many online communications the capacity for mistakes to have a lasting effect are increased. Consideration in SNS design needs to be given to support the user’s preferred modes of use in order to support them in reflecting the persona which they wish to present.

Learning through networking

Recent studies indicate that Higher Education students are reporting that they learn through their use of SNS. Siemens and Downes have a learning theory, Connectivism, which predicts this, and which emphasises the need for the skills and tools for making and maintaining networks of connections between agents (people, computers and repositories, for example). Whilst some portions of the population have a strong desire to keep social and educational/work networks apart, others are happy for them to mix. Currently it is not clear whether there is either an educational or social advantage to either approach, but it is an area which needs study and consideration when looking to the future of SNS.

Content and meaning

Whilst semantic web developments are mainly focussed on using markup and well defined ontologies to enhance the functionality of the web, users are unlikely to fully engage with the activities necessary to maintain the system using these technologies. With the current growth of user contributed content providing a major driver of interest in internet use, it is becoming apparent that any semantic attributes of web material must fit closely with user competencies and behaviours. The provision of communal bookmarking services allows for a form of semantic tagging resulting in a folksonomy, which lacks the formality of the rigorous ontological approach. However, for efficient machine processing, the rigid ontology has benefits in terms of speed and consistency. We refer to the gap between the folksonomical and ontological approaches as the Onto-folksonomical divide.

Users as key component of systems

With users occupying multiple roles, and having dynamic social networks which can grow and shrink, an important aspect in the future of SNS is to provide tools which allow users to be able to manage their connections, and the trust networks which exist. Trust and reputation are important aspects in social life in general, and the persistence of information on the web coupled with the speed of transmission of ideas mean that they are especially important in computer mediated social networks. Tools for managing a distributed presence on the web, and for checking what others’ views of the user’s web presence are likely to be are necessary to support effective SNS use. Additionally, user awareness of their Digital Identity(DI) is a key element in empowering them to take control of how they are seen by others.

This Is Me

The This Is Me project at the University of Reading(UoR) is producing learning materials based on people’s real DI experiences to provide users to learn either individually or in groups about their DIs. This complements other work in progress in OdinLab, Uor, which deal with areas such as competency frameworks, ePortfolios, identity in multi-user virtual environments and a tool for helping users manage their content through a Folksonomical File System which forms the basis of the MeAggregatorTM.

This Is Me builds on exploratory work on trust networks and the need for identity and reputation to be regarded as a first-class element of design for Web 2.0 systems, and to underpin new work on semantically aware systems. By raising user awareness of issues which can have a life-long impact on them, This Is Me seeks not only to help users become more effective in their use of SNS but to encourage their considered use of tagging and of meta-data.