I have been thinking about the Social Web and how I participate in it and my approach has changed over time. The way I see it there are two ways you can participate in the Social Web.
The first is to focus your activities on one or two social networks and attract your friends to that service. A good example is Facebook. There are so many people using Facebook that it is easy to do just about everything on Facebook and use that as the focal point of your social activities on the Web. In a way, Facebook becomes an aggregator of your life and with the increasing number of Facebook applications this becomes easier and easier.
The problem with this approach, though, is that is the site becomes less interesting than the next big site, you have to re-establish yourself on the new service, wait for all your friends to move across (or perhaps you won’t move across until they do) and then continue building your social presence on the Web. An alternative to this is to register with a couple social networking sites and make the time to keep them up to date (or not) to cater for your friends who use the other services and not your main service. This can be pretty tiring and not many people commit to this.
Another way to participate in the Social Web is to set up a series of lifestreams emanating from a core set of feeds. Your social network becomes a distributed network and all you need to do is plug your feeds into a new service that presumably supports multiple feeds and keep those lifestreams going by posting regularly to the core services. So what I do is I have my blogs and feeds from a couple services I use (for example, Twitter, Pownce, Digg, Tumblr, a couple video sharing sites as well as services like LinkedIn, ClaimID, Amazon’s wishlists and more) and each of those services plugs into the lifestream services I use like Plaxo Pulse, Jaiku and, more recently, Profilactic. If you want to keep track of my social activities on the Web then you can plug into one of those lifestream services or follow the individual components (the blogs, video sharing and other services). This approach gives people who want to connect to me multiple entry points to do that and I don’t have to keep each individual service maintained all the time. I still stick with the main services I prefer to use and don’t register for every service I come across but the idea is that most people who want to connect to me will use one or more of those services and will still be able to connect to me in a meaningful way.
I see the future of the Social Web becoming even more focused on you and the tools you use every day. We all use something that has pretty much been our social network long before social networking was a buzzword: our address book. To grow social networks rely on our address books. Think about how Facebook, LinkedIn and many other services give you the option of tapping into your address books to find contacts also using the service and connect to them, or even to invite contacts to join you. Your address book is at the core of your social network and all the other stuff would be useless without it. Services that realise this will become the primary facilitators as the Social Web evolves further. At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, one service that is doing this already is Plaxo. Its core focus has been its address book service and its recent introduction of Pulse has added an almost platform neutral lifestream service. It is worth taking a good look at.
I wonder if we will still have dedicated social networking sites in the next few years or if we will see more functionality built into our digital address books and light services set up to facilitate our lifestreams? Trying to predict the future of the Web is a bit like trying to hold water in your hands – you get the basics but the bulk of it escapes you. Whichever way the Social Web goes, I don’t really see all in one sites like Facebook sticking around in the near future. They are too far removed from the true focal point of our social space.