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The future of social networking

(This is a draft of a feature I wrote for PA.)


No-one ever made a movie about Stephan Paternot.

Who?

You might well ask. Stephan was the co-founder of The Globe, the Facebook of the 1990s.

If you don't remember The Globe, you're not alone. It was briefly the biggest, most exciting web project in the world. It broke records when Paternot and colleagues started selling shares.

For a while it was worth millions of dollars, but quickly fell into decline. After the boom came the bust, the 90s dotcom bubble went pop, and suddenly no-one was interested in The Globe any more.

Sounds like a great movie, doesn't it?

Hollywood didn't think geeks were cool back then, but it does now. The Social Network, which opened in UK cinemas last week, tells the tale of how college student Mark Zuckerberg came up with an idea, and how that idea grew incredibly fast. Facebook is now one of the internet's largest sites and most powerful forces.

Does Zuckerberg ever look back at the last decade's dead dotcoms - sites like The Globe - and wonder how he can avoid the same fate?

Let's give him a helping hand. Let's take a look at the future of social networking.

Future fights

Facebook has been in trouble for neglecting people's privacy. By default, everything you post on Facebook is public. Anyone, anywhere, can read it.

Ideally, people should be very careful about what they post anywhere on the internet. Google and the other search sites remember everything they find, and if it's linked to your name, it might come up again in the future, perhaps with serious implications. Perhaps when a potential employer Googles your name.

But the reality is that most people just aren't bothered. Although they can change their privacy settings if they wish, most don't.

Another problem for social networks is that everyone else wants to start one. Facebook has to fight hard to stay ahead.

With 500 million registered members, Facebook is by far the biggest network around. But Twitter is growing fast, with 75 million; Google's Orkut service is huge in Brazil and India, with 100 million members. There are dozens more you've probably never heard of, including plenty of newcomers waiting for their chance.

One of these is a tiny startup, Diaspora. Founded by four students, it will let anyone create their own mini social network, and connect all the networks together. It promises to be "privacy aware" from day one.

Diaspora was funded by donations, gathered (of course) via the web. Oddly, one of the donors was Mark Zuckerberg himself.

Everything is the network

At the moment, you make the decision to go to Facebook on your computer or your phone, and say something there.

What if computers could so some of that for you?

There are signs of this happening already. Mobile phones, and some notebook and tablet computers, have built-in GPS technology. They "know" where they are, and can automatically send this location data to the internet.

Some of the hottest social networks depend on this. Sites like Gowalla (www.gowalla.com) and FourSquare (www.foursq.com) are all about location. They know where you are, and where your friends are. They can help you see other people more often.

Smarter computers of the future will be able to understand more about their surroundings, and about their owners.

If a computer could measure your blood pressure and other vital signs while you held it in your hand, it could share that information online too. Your network would know where you are and how you are.

Another thing networks already know - and something that Facebook wants to turn to its advantage - is what you like.

If a network knows which songs you like, it can recommend new songs for you (last.fm is doing this now). If it knows the kind of events you go to, it can recommend more.

... and the network is everything

What will these smarter computers look like? They'll be small, but not much smaller than today's smartphones and tablets. They will have sharp, detailed displays and will respond to touch, gesture and voice commands. They might even talk back.

South African designers Matthew Buckland and Philip Langley have imagined what machines like this might look like in the near future. Their translucent tablet designs would be smart enough to recognise nearby people and objects, and pluck out relevant data from social networks to display about them.

So combined with smarter hardware that can understand its surroundings, the social networks of the future could monitor everything you do online and off, without you even thinking about it.

If you already consider Facebook an invasion of privacy, you might not enjoy this future much, because your pocket computer devices will betray your every move to the network. If you go shopping, the network could know what you bought (and what you looked at, but didn't buy). If you go to a concert, the network could know how many photos you took, how much you danced, and how much the drinks were at the bar.

Imagine a social network where all of this gets shared with everyone, all the time. A constant flow of information.

There are two potential problems: one is the loss of privacy. The other is the quantity of information being created. No-one will ever have time to sit through every detail of their friends' lives, so those tiny smart computers we carry will do another task: as well as creating information, they will sort it for us.

Software algorithms will know what you're interested in and what you're not. They will be able to filter through the flood of data and present you with just the bits you need to know.

Losing privacy will be the price people must pay to become members of this all-seeing, all-knowing group mind.

But membership is always optional. For those who want to discover their own books, and live life at their own pace, there will always be another choice: disconnect, and switch off.


Filed under: computers
(19th October 2012)