Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

More Than Friending: How Can the Social Web Go Beyond Facebook?

When people talk about making the Web more “social,” what they really seem to mean is making it more tightly integrated with Facebook.

But is that all there is?

With only a smattering of deliberate exceptions, new sites and apps launch with Facebook Connect to get the network effects of tying into its powerful social graph and potent spamming tools. Instead of attempting to create their own social network, they piggyback on top of Facebook’s.

In fact, one former Google product manager told AllThingsD recently that one of the biggest reasons he left the company to work on a social start-up was so he could use Facebook Connect, something Google discourages.

But while Facebook might be the hottest game in town, it’s still a pretty warped and inaccurate picture of what it means to have friends.

And it all makes me wonder, what are other models of “social” besides Facebook’s current product? Could someone who does social better than Facebook mount a significant competitor to the site? And, most importantly, could they succeed?

Friending Is Broken

One of Facebook’s most fundamental flaws is its notion of friending. Relationships on Facebook don’t naturally expire as they do in the real world. To unfriend is drastic, used only in the direst of circumstances–like a bad breakup.

And the fact that people from so many parts of our lives are on Facebook elicits bland communication. You often don’t really know who you’re talking to, so you stop talking.

Akshay Kothari, CEO of the news app Pulse, only recently started a new Facebook profile. He friended just 15 people: His family, closest friends, and Pulse co-workers. It turned out great, he said–his newsfeed was full of relevant and important information.

But after about two months, Kothari started logging back into the old profile. “It was like a telephone book that I had lost,” he said. Plus, he’d missed out on parties, because he hadn’t seen the event invitations.

You might think that some of these complaints have to do with life in the hyper-connected tech industry–where talking to someone for five minutes at a conference often results in a friend request–and they often do.

But meanwhile, a family member of mine joined Facebook this past year when she started high school. She already has 500 friends. Just imagine how many she’ll have in five years.

Friend overload was part of Facebook’s rationale behind Facebook Groups, 50 million of which have been created in the past six months. Start-ups such as GroupMe and Fridge are focused on groups as well.

But while explicitly designated groups might make great sense for co-workers, or a family, or even a neighborhood, not every relationship fits neatly into a group.


One alternative to Facebook’s static friending is dynamically created relationships based on common experiences. The start-up Color, despite its many flaws, is certainly onto something here.

The idea behind Color is to create a collaborative record of a place and time where people were together. The company’s app aggregates users’ photos by location, using factors like GPS as well as sound and light detection.

As compared to Facebook, proximity-based approaches from companies like Color could potentially do a better job of integrating the offline world, and be better at helping us find and meet people we do not already know.

Color, with its big funding and smart team, should have had better intuition about helping people understand and find value from its app.

Even so, it might not have been able to solve the extremely hard problems it is posing.

For instance, how do you get new users to see the value of a social product without connecting to people they already know? How do you do social without the notions of friending or privacy?

Interestingly, Color CEO Bill Nguyen has said Color may add Facebook Connect, as well as tell new users who are not within a reasonable distance of other people to come back later.

Other companies are working around this approach too. The college flirting service LikeALittle, aka LAL, recently released an iPhone app that creates an on-the-fly chat room for any location. Users can see who else is currently present and scroll through a historical stream of photos and statuses posted from that place.

If you’ve checked out Yobongo, the pleasantly designed but often empty iPhone chat room app, the LAL app feels kind of like a hybrid of Color and Yobongo. But there’s a difference: LAL already has millions of users at 450 colleges, so it doesn’t have quite the loneliness problem of the other two apps.

LAL, which is public and anonymous by default, says it’s only for colleges, but when I logged into the app recently I could see active streams for Bay to Breakers, LAL headquarters, and Las Vegas.

Beyond Real Names

But Facebook is not just about friending. The service has become the identity provider for much of the Web–a powerful asset that’s increasingly hard for competitors to challenge.

This real name system has been a core tenet of Facebook since it started, and in many online situations entering a Facebook-approved real name is tantamount to swiping a card that verifies you’re a real person.

But a name, password and profile picture are a two-dimensional version of a person. You could better ensure that someone is who they say they are by adding fingerprint scans, VPN dongles and, perhaps someday, X-ray vision.

Or you could try users’ mobile phones, which are always with them. You could use something like a Google Voice account that rings all their numbers: Home, work and cell. You could incorporate their presence from instant messaging to better indicate availability.

If you think about it, there has to be some sort of virtual unified identity system that’s better than just a real name.

Incidentally, this could be an awfully good way for Google to compete with Facebook.

The Interest Graph

Another meaningful alternate to Facebook’s social graph is the so-called “interest graph,” as best demonstrated by Twitter.

On Twitter and other sites like Quora, people you’re interested in are commingled with topics you’re interested in. Once you follow a critical mass of Twitter accounts, you get a non-stop flow of personalized content.

A weather update combined with a friend’s post about winning a soccer game combined with a breaking news alert plus three heaping servings of self-promotional tweets does get a bit chaotic sometimes, but it’s all stuff you’ve explicitly said you want to hear about.

Twitter may not be a full competitor to Facebook, but it obviously fills a simple and accessible publishing function better than Facebook. And because Twitter is almost completely public, and because it’s designed around one-way relationships, the notion of un-following is less dramatic than un-friending.

But that begs the question: Are public, one-way relationships really all that social?

Distributed Networks

Another approach might be to go the other direction, one toward more privacy. Facebook’s Achilles’ heel is privacy, so one way to defeat the company might be to conceive of a social network that gives more power to users.

Altly is a newly launched company that promises it is building an alternative to Facebook that will be more respectful of users’ information.

Altly CEO Dmitry Shapiro, who was most recently a Myspace executive, wrote a manifesto about his company’s premise:

For every Coke there is a Pepsi, for every Ford there is a Chevy, for every PC there is a Mac and for every Facebook there is…. a void!

Shapiro isn’t the first person with this idea. Last year, Diaspora, which has yet to deliver on its promise of a distributed open source social network, attracted more than 6,000 donations before it even got started. The founders recently promised “we’re still here, and we’re going strong,” although their network is still invite-only.

Another fresh new company called SecretSocial (which operates out of the cute URL allows users to create chat rooms that expire, leaving no data behind, after a user-designated time period of 15 minutes to one week. Organizers can invite participants via SMS, Twitter or phone and then converse without logging in.

Or there’s Path, which uses a one-way relationship model that’s the opposite of Twitter: Users choose whom to share with, instead of whom to follow. Path limits users to sharing their pictures and video with 50 people to encourage them to pick carefully.

A more private social Web site will grow more slowly as it loses the benefit of network effects that Facebook and others so effectively enjoy. Users are probably more likely to choose a site because their friends use it than because it promises to keep them safe.

It’s clear that existing social networks value publicness, for advertising purposes and others. Attempts to regulate privacy could significantly change the social networking dynamic.

Facebook and other companies including Google, Twitter and Zynga are this week aggressively fighting a proposed California law that would make social networks more private by requiring their users to choose privacy settings up front and defaulting all options to private.


When you ask tech start-up folks who or what could best compete with Facebook, as I have repeatedly, the most common answer you get is “mobile.”

Said one social start-up CEO:

“The way people use web is very different than the way people view and interact on mobile devices. One company can’t focus on and win on both platforms at the same time since they are so different. There is definitely a chance for companies to compete with Facebook by focusing on mobile.”

The reasoning goes like this: Using a phone is an intimate and personal experience in ways that a Web browser isn’t. It’s also much more connected to the offline real world. Your phone is always with you and knows where you are, and you’re probably the only one who uses it. It has your text and calling contacts.

Plus, competing with a company that has a seven-year, 700 million-member advantage requires ingenuity. Facebook became a viable competitor to Google not by improving search (in fact, Facebook search is awful), but by changing the Web paradigm to include social.

That said, it seems like a cop out to say the best way to compete with Facebook’s version of social is not social, but mobile. But perhaps it’s true.

(Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.)

Phone book photo credit: Flickr user bondidwhat

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