If you are a user of a social network, you aren't interested in whether or not it makes money, you just want it to do whatever it is you need. This may seem obvious, but I think it poses a problem for social network "owners" – users will just go off somewhere better on a whim (as happened with MySpace). Stuffing the network full of advertising, even if that were a viable business model, is not appealing to many users either.
Of course, for a user it is easy to say what's right about a social network. It should enable you to do what it is you want to do, easily, without distractions but with "targeted serendipity". I am increasingly aware that the power of the internet is not to do with speed – these days, if there is a world-shattering event or someone famous dies, I duck. First Twitter, then blogs, are instantly filled with many identical observations. In my opinion, there is no news that can't wait for a day to be read at leisure in the newspaper. I, like everyone else, am very busy so I don't want to read the same thing over and over again, usually with no added value or insight to the other people's posts.
So, what the internet is good for is filtering. This is why for me, the best social networks are Friend Feed and Nature Network, supported by an RSS reader (Google Reader), Twitter, and, recently, this Typepad blog. Other people will prefer other social networks depending on their needs. There is no relationship, from the user perspective, with the number of people on a network and its success. What is important to the user is the quality of the other users, not the quantity. That way, you can have what I've called here "targeted serendipity", eg "I know I like Bernadette's book reviews so even though I've never heard of this author I'll read this book on the basis of her review" or "I really don't need to add another blog right now to my reading list but Kerrie recomends Margot's blog, so I'll take a look" (that's how I discovered one of my very favourite blogs, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist).
Why do I like the networks that I like?
Friend Feed is a microblogging service that, unlike Twitter, allows you to aggregate posts into groups or "rooms" based round a common interest. Friend Feed also allows you to integrate much of your online activity into one place (your profile), and to see other people's activities on those platforms. If I don't use any of the 40 or so websites that FF supports, but I am interested in you and you do, I can use FF to see your activity on those platforms. If I don't like your contributions to FF, I can block you specifically so that I don't see anything you write. If I visit another social network so don't want that duplicated on FF, I can block that network. The end result is a highly personalised web service which I primarily use to discuss books and reviews of those books with a small group (172 at last count) of people round the world who (mostly) like the same type of book.
Nature Network is a group of blogs and forums whose content is entirely provided by users, most of whom are scientists or interested in science communication of some kind. it is free to use. It is not as technically sophisticated as some of the other platforms, but its main pleasures are the concentration of scientifically minded people who share interesting opinions, and the personalities of those people, most of whom are charming, witty, argumentative (in the nicest sense of the word!), creative and friendly. What NN lacks in technical sophistication it more than makes up for in its customer service: the NN team of about half a dozen publishers, editors, community managers and programmers are always at the end of an email if anything goes wrong, and regularly take part in the conversations. What a breath of fresh air in an increasingly "outsourced" world, to know that one can ask Lou, Matt, Jo or Ian (say) something, and get a thoughtful answer from a real person.
Google Reader. This isn't a social network really, though it tries to be. It is the way in which I read and comment on blogs – all the blogs I regularly read are delivered to one website (Google Reader) so I only have to access one site instead of every single blog I read. GR is introducing more and more social features, eg you can see your "friends' " choices of blog reading, you can "like" someone's blog posts and see how many other people feel the same, you can easily email posts to people. However, I don't see my use of GR changing significantly from being my window to blogs and to keep me in touch with what those bloggers are writing and conversing about at their own sites.
Typepad. Six Apart, the company that makes the Typepad blogging platform, have introduced a lot of changes over the past year. One of these is that the blog dashboard is now a way to connect to and follow other Typepad bloggers and people with a Typepad profile. When I log on now, I see posts and comments from the people I follow. I use this service a bit – i.e. I follow five people, only two of whom have Typepad blogs. I think this service would be more useful if I read more Typepad blogs, but most of the blogs I read seem to be on Blogger – Typepad and WordPress are in a minority. The Typepad system does work, though, because I do comment on Kim's blog Reading Matters more frequently through seeing her posts and comments every day in my dashboard, and similarly for Ben of Material Witness. I'd do the same for It's a Crime! blog and Random Jottings blog also, but their bloggers don't seem to be part of the new system, as yet. (Incidentally, I like Typepad very much, not strictly on-topic for this post, but their customer service is also great, once again staffed by real people who go the extra mile, totally unlike Google's automated forums.)
Twitter. I do see the use for Twitter now, but again, I am so pressed for time that I don't follow anyone who uses the service to "chat" about their daily comings, goings and musings. I follow two or three individuals who share common interests, a couple of lists, and apart from that, organisations (eg publishers, publications) who post links to articles or books that I am likely to want to read. Twitter is a similar service to Friend Feed but its aggregation is by hash tag (created by all the users interested in one topic, eg a conference or a TV programme or a joke on a theme) rather than by "rooms". You can't build up a conversation on Twitter in the same way that you can on Friend Feed, but it is increasingly popular as a way to communicate about or during a mass event.
Facebook. I think this is the world's most popular social networking site, and the one that seems to be making the most out of the current fad for mobile applications. I don't use it myself apart from maintaining a presence there as it does not fit any of my lifestyle needs, but I can understand why it is very popular when I see how young people I know use it to keep in touch – with year groups from school or college, to share photos, to arrange events, share mutual jokes, and so on. It's cheaper and more efficient than the phone. It is carrying an increasing amount of advertising, and it will be interesting to see if it goes the way of MySpace and becomes essentially unusable because of the quantity and quality of ads. It will also be interesting to see if it continues to annoy its users by introducing new features without asking them first, then having to backtrack (as happened to Google with Google Buzz).
Well, this post is a bit of an incoherent information dump, but I enjoyed writing down what I like about certain social networks. I doubt that any of them will make money by following my advice, but they will have some happy users!
Disclaimer: I am aware there are lots of other social networks out there, and have even used quite a few of them. I'm just focusing here on the ones I like, and return to regularly.