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Get Smart About Your Readers: Ideas & Insights
Thursday, November 06, 2008

Online social networks soon will transcend Web sites

(Rich Gordon)

Seeing the rapid growth of online social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, many publishers have begun to develop or incorporate social-networking capabilities. A few examples: (magazine Web site as social network), TimesPeople (social network for users), BusinessExchange (social network for Business Week readers) and USA Today's social-networking capabilities.

I'm a great believer in the value of online community-building, and in many ways it's encouraging to see that traditional media are learning from online social networks.

But the more I watch the evolution of social networks on the Web, the more a couple of things seem clear:
  1. No one wants to be part of more than a few online social networks.

  2. Increasingly, social networks are becoming separate from Web sites - or, put another way, social networks can have an impact on your experience on multiple sites beyond the social-networking site itself (such as Facebook or MySpace).
Earlier this year, Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li made a public presentation (and blog post) arguing that in the future, social networks would be "like air." At the time, I had some trouble imagining what that would actually mean. But now I'm getting a clearer picture. Here are some examples:

Twitter (which my colleague Steve Duke wrote about last week) makes it possible for people to (1) broadcast "tweets" to their network of "followers"; and (2) follow people whose tweets they value. Steve is right that Twitter is currently being used by a small number of digerati, and it may never become more widely used. But I still find Twitter very interesting. For one thing, the Twitter communication model is really ideal for mobile devices (the 140-character limit is perfect for quick updates). For another, "following" a person (or publication) whose content you consistently find relevant is a powerful idea.

FriendFeed solves a problem that active online participants have. Let's say you publish a blog, post updates to Twitter, bookmark pages on Delicious or publish reviews on Yelp. You'd like everything you do to be aggregated in one place, and made available to your social network. That's what FriendFeed does. Once you've told FriendFeed where to find the stuff you publish online, members of your social network can follow you via the service. Plus, your FriendFeed content shows up in your "feed" on Facebook.


Glue is a Firefox browser add-on that displays sites you like, or your network likes, in a narrow strip above the Web page you're viewing.


Twitter, FriendFeed and Glue are interesting. But the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in this space is Facebook, and it's getting ready to roll out a new service called Facebook Connect. This service enables Web sites to integrate with Facebook, with these implications (and others):
  • The Web site can allow people to log in and register with their Facebook ID instead of requiring them to create a new, site-specific ID;

  • Once logged in, content that Facebook users post to the second site can show up in their Facebook feed, thereby distributing this content to their Facebook network;

  • Information from a user's Facebook profile (for instance, their ID and photo/icon) can show up on the second site.
A student team here at the Medill School (in a class I've mentioned previously on this blog) is tackling two interesting challenges: (1) improving the tools available for online interaction around news (for instance, better ways of commenting) and (2) engaging young adults in local news. They've decided to take advantage of Facebook Connect in building a news-interaction site. This means Facebook users can log in using their Facebook ID, and it also means that this ID will serve as their persistent identity on the site.

We don't know whether Facebook users will see not having to register separately for the new site as attractive or intrusive. Maybe they don't want their Facebook ID to follow them on other sites. But Facebook Connect has interesting implications for discussions around news, as one of the students, Brian Boyer, has written:

Will you be more likely to comment if you know your friends will see what you have to say? Will you be less likely to act like a jackass? We’re hoping so.

You can follow the students' work at Crunchberry Project (named after one of the products produced at the Quaker Oats factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of class sponsor Gazette Communications).

By Rich Gordon (
Rich Gordon is Associate Professor and Director of Digital Technology in Education at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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