A week or so back I came across an old notebook from back when I lived in Atlanta where I’d scribbled a bunch of thoughts on social networks, my issues with trends, and where I thought things might be going. Looking at those thoughts a few years later was cool. I’m happy to say I got a few things right, like a push for more meaningful content in smaller communities (quora, branch, etc..). Though I absolutely missed things like the rise of Tumblr.

Finding that notebook kinda meshed with some interesting thoughts I’ve had of late about how I use social networking these days. The interesting thing that I’ve been playing with is that my favorite social network right now is Skype. Skype, despite being a chat client, has all the hallmarks of a social network. There are connections, group feeds, private messaging, media, comments, and archiving.

The thing about Skype is that content targeting and organization is ad-hoc. This is opposed to most modern social networks that rely on pre-built groupings for connections. Facebook has it’s “lists” and “groups”, google+ has it’s “circles”. But what these assume is that static grouping of people will make sense for most use cases. I think that’s a fallacy. My life is often ad-hoc, and my needs for groups are dynamic. Neither the structures or the interfaces provided in mainstream social networks support the ad-hoc use case.

As an aside, the best model for this ad-hoc targeting and privacy I’ve seen in action is actually facebook invite-only events. I’ve seen some really interesting dynamics pick up with event pages used as small community focal points. Pages for small brands with high engagement see similar dynamics. Its probably telling that the model I like best is often used for planning real world get togethers / networking. Get togethers with people of similar interests who don’t know each other are some of the most enjoyable around. Its always great to meet new people who are like you. Can we extend that experience to the social web in new ways?

I find there are two primary modes of communication I want to have on the social web. The first is broadcast. We’re really good at broadcast. This is my twitter feed, my facebook feed, and my blog. I’m creating content and blasting it out into the ether. Sometimes I add some targeting to surface it to specific people, but by and large it is a public broadcast. It is opt-in content that people seeing it have “tuned-in to”. Its loud, viral, low-friction, and often returns nice, if shallow, bits of social feedback in the form of likes and comments. As an online community we love it.

There are of course downsides to the broadcast method of communication. There’s a bad signal to noise ratio, and content, even in aggregate is really ephemeral. We move from one item to the next very quickly. Often we see trends and memes, but miss details, depth, and connections to others. Hence we’ve seen the rise of services trying to filter and aggregate this content. I wonder if theres a better option.

The second mode of communication is when we only want to talk with specific people, or a group of people. This one is actually really ill served. As I said above, most social networks deal with this via groups. On the surface this makes sense, “work friends”, “close friends”, “family”, “church friends”, “gaming buddies”. When asked to categorize people these are the common connections we make. Where do we know someone from, how do we connect with them in the real world? When we get to sharing and discussing content on the web though, these groupings break down. Interests only sometimes line up with our real world behaviors.

An example piece of content. I’ve got this esoteric, racy, experimental music/interactive work from some burning-man-esce scene. I love this sort of thing and love talking about it with like minded people:

 

  • My family and many of the people I know from work probably aren’t that interested. Some people might even be offended or just find it noise, so I’m not going to broadcast it. I’d rather not waste their time.
  • I know I want to send it to a specific group of people. I’ve got my brother, three friends from work, a friend from an old job, a friend I met at a party, an old college professor, and a bunch of my friends who went to college with me who I’d like to share this with. Not a group I’d have pre-made.
  • Where I met these people and where I see them in real life don’t really apply here.


What I need is a quick, ad-hoc group, relevant to the content I’m sharing. I also need a way of adding them quickly. With this content, what I’d probably do right now is throw it on my brother’s facebook wall or just link it in one or two of my skype chats. But what if I instead had a good way to send the content to a larger, defined group of people and link them all together in a more private conversation. I think theres a chance for much more interesting discussion happening here. Forums and other permanent online communities sorta cover this but theres a lot of overhead there.

So what does a user gain from sending to a smaller, tighter group. It seems to me they create a much better environment for tight feedback loops and conversation with those people. It also significantly improves the signal to noise ratio. Thats why I love using skype. Instead of selecting from a large predetermined group of people (though I can do that with some of my chats), I can grab a few people, throw them into a chat, and send an item out. I often have ad-hoc skype chats grow, live, and die over minutes, hours, or days. It is an easy flow, and allows my experience with the app to mimic the dynamics of my life.

I have some more thoughts on how we might implement these sorts of interaction but for now I’m going to leave it at this. Would love to get others thoughts on the topic.