Social Networking is Like Fast Food
I've been thinking about social technologies for a very long time, and I think that people are starting to get the sense that there's something wrong with social networking. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like - they are social in so far as these technologies are about people, but what they do for people is only questionably so. I tell people this, and they go, "What are you talking about? I have X number of people connected to me all the time! I'm more connected than ever!" But does that mean they are actually more "connected?" Do you really feel close to the 1500 "friends" you have on Facebook? I don't really think so.
I think of social networking right now a lot like I think of fast food.
Think about the experience of going into a McDonald's. You go in, order a Big Mac, for rather cheap and for something quick. First of all, there's no cooking done in a McDonald's - you won't see any pots or pans back there. There's no denying that what you're getting is not made the same way you would have it at home - it's precooked and being reheated. So you get your Big Mac, it certainly looks nutritious, it certainly tastes good, but you're not getting much more than empty calories. I can't tell you the number of times I've eaten at McDonald's and still found myself hungry afterwards. Also, you don't eat at the McDonald's. You tend to take it home or back to work, and you eat it alone. In the end, I came in for something quick, cheap, and tasty - I got those things, but I don't feel good about it afterwards.
Contrast that with going to a local restaurant you like.
Someone crafted your food - it was cooked for you. There's usually history and culture and tradition about that food. The staff is friendly and you're being catered to. They have stories to share with you, should you ask. You also tend to go with friends to these sorts of places. You have conversations with them, and reminisce, and bond over the things you're eating. These are things you remember. In the end, you go home thinking you had a good time, and you should go back to that restaurant some time soon. Most of all, you feel closer to the people you went with.
Facebook is like McDonalds. I am getting things that are packaged to look and feel social. They are provided to me quickly and cheaply. But I hardly ever feel good about going afterwards. Status updates, photos, links to articles, they are technically social things from my "friends," but they are nothing like the real thing.
Tweets are the chicken nuggets of social networking.
I don't remember all the times I go to McDonalds. I do remember the times I went to that bistro with my friends, even if the food wasn't phenomenal. In the same way, when I look back at my life, I won't remember the tweets I sent, the statuses I posted, the photos I put on Facebook, but I will remember the times I went to a bar crawl with my coworkers, or the first time I met each of my friends in a new city, or the time I cooked Thanksgiving dinner away from home with them. Social technologies should be doing more to create experiences, rather than log or share them in artifacts as text, photos, or links.
Technology can do so much more for our social lives than it is now. Where's the restaurant equivalent of Facebook? Why haven't we built it yet?
As developers, I think we can. In fact, I think we should. It's been the problem I've been trying to solve, as I know a lot of people and startups are too. I'm not saying we should destroy social networking in its present state, in the exact same way I don't think we need to kill fast food. Fast food has helped feed a lot of people that wouldn't otherwise be fed, for cheap. I also can't begin to tell you how gratifying it is to eat chicken nuggets sometimes. But I don't think the world should be dominated by fast food, for our long-term prospects. Similarly, I think we can keep the current social tech, and we may always need it and it may never go away because it does good things for a lot of people. But what happens when I have 10,000 followers, and no one to grab a quick burger with?
I just think we can build something so much better.