Can Social Networking Move Beyond Facebook?

Are there any alternatives to the friend/ unfriend Facebook network when it comes to meeting and greeting on the web? Liz Gannes, senior editor at All Things Digital, discusses the drawbacks of Facebook, and some alternatives in social networking including Color and LAL.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Once upon a time, there was an intimate gathering of people. They were friends. They chatted, shared pictures of parties, talked about music, the movies they liked, sent updates to one another and what they ate for lunch.

But then two more friends joined and they told two friends - two other friends to join, and soon there were hundreds of friends and friends of friends and grandmothers of friends. And then the companies they thought and things they bought with, well, they wanted to know what the friends. They wanted things from these friends.

And the whole idea of what it meant to be friends became confusing. Some of the friends wanted to leave, to unfriend, to go a less crowded group of friends, one that really knew them and respected their privacy.

Sound like your situation? Too many friends on your social network? Too many people or advertisers vying for your attention? Is there some other place to go? Does the perfect social network exist?

Well, maybe not, but concerned people are working on it, and my next guest covers some of the up-and-coming social network sites in a new article she has written for her column AllThingsDigital.

Liz Gannes is a senior editor at AllThingsDigital, and she joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Liz.

Ms. LIZ GANNES (Senior Editor, AllThingsDigital): Thank you.

FLATOW: You write that while Facebook might be the hottest game in town, it's still a pretty warped and inaccurate picture of what it means to have fiends. What do you mean by that?

Ms. GANNES: I mean just like what you're talking about. As your friends have exploded beyond maybe the people you went to college with or the people you hang out with on weekends to include your employer and your grandmother and all these other different parts of your life, maybe what you're saying becomes a little bit diluted, and you really don't want to say the same thing to all those people.

So you stop using Facebook, the biggest social network that 700 million people actively use every month, and you maybe retreat into yourself or go back offline.

FLATOW: So you're saying that when people say they don't like Facebook because of the privacy, that's really not the issue there.

Ms. GANNES: I do think that is one of the big issues and certainly the one most actively portrayed in the media. I think that there are maybe five or so key weaknesses of Facebook, including the kind of awkward friending model, and that it creates these static friendships that don't really expire like natural friendships do and privacy issues, as well as other potential areas of improvement that maybe other people could do better, that might have more - a social network that has a closer relationship to where we are in time instead of just our real name as we express ourselves online might be a better representation of ourselves.

So what I was doing was looking at some of the weaknesses of Facebook and looking at some promising new social networking sites that address them better.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of those. What have you found?

Ms. GANNES: Well, one of the things that I think is most interesting is talking about friends in a more dynamic way. So, for instance, if you were to go to a wedding this weekend, many people there would be taking pictures there with their smartphones.

And every picture that's taken with a smartphone is geotagged. We know when and where it was taken. And if we were to all join a social network together, for instance there's one called Color, there's one called Like a Little, there are quite a few of these sites, well, more apps because you have them on your smartphone.

And we all took these pictures at the same time, these services would recognize that we were all there and create this kind of collaborative album that tells a story told by many people who were in the same place at the same time. And I think we all might appreciate that version of it rather than looking all over Facebook or just our own albums to see what happened.

FLATOW: And, you know, until I read your column, I didn't even know these existed. They...

Ms. GANNES: Well, the thing is they're quite small.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GANNES: These are new and emerging services. I wouldn't say that they're anywhere near taking on Facebook for our mindshare. And it's really hard to start a new social network because the point of being on one of these sites or using one of these apps is because your friends are there. And achieving those kind of network effects does not come easily.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 if our number if you'd like to suggest what you'd like to see in your friendship or what kind of social networking you would like. Give us a call. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Or go to our Facebook page at /scifri.

What happened to Diaspora? We talked about that last year. It was supposed to be sort of an open-source version of Facebook.

Ms. GANNES: Diaspora is still in the works. I think those guys put up a blog post recently saying it's still coming. But it's only in private beta, meaning it's not even available to everyone who wants to use it.

There's another site that's call Altly, A-L-T-L-Y, that just announced itself I think maybe a week or two ago, saying that they're going to provide a privacy-conscious alternative to Facebook.

And honestly, when I put up this story earlier this week, my comments were filled with more and more people talking about these sites. But the reality is starting a privacy-conscious version of Facebook means that your users are going to make their information private by default, which means no one's going to be able to find them.

Starting a distributed version of Facebook, where your users host their own information rather than putting it on a network where someone else owns it means that your users have to be pretty geeky. So these things are hard to start.

FLATOW: You know, one of the big problems with Facebook is you can't really separate your personal life from your work life like you can on something like LinkedIn.

Ms. GANNES: That's right, but LinkedIn, I think, at least for me, is a site where I go to get information but not necessarily to engage and hang out. It's very useful for what it is, but I wouldn't say LinkedIn is even a social network.

FLATOW: Oh, you don't think it is?

Ms. GANNES: I don't. I mean, I think that social network addresses - is an online alternative to the way that we engage and interact with our friends offline. I know that the expression of who our friends are is a pretty wide thing, and many people are friends with their co-workers, but I think LinkedIn is oriented much more towards people who are seeking jobs or seeking to hire people.

FLATOW: Let's talk a little bit about Google on social networking. This 800-pound gorilla never really figured it out, did they?

Ms. GANNES: It's true, and the CEO, the former of Google, Eric Schmidt, longtime CEO for the last 10 years who just stepped down, he spoke at a conference put on by my company this week. And he was saying that - he said about four years ago, in internal memos, that the issue of identity and figuring out a way to express who people are and disambiguate them online was a really core issue.

And he sent around memos to that effect about four years ago, which really was when Facebook was just starting. It was much smaller than it is today. And he called it a screw-up on his part that Google had not figured that out.

And I think him saying identity is really akin to him saying social because Facebook has become the proxy for our identities online.

FLATOW: So there's no real competition to it, not even from Google or in the foreseeable future?

Ms. GANNES: Yeah, it's kind of disappointing, I think.

FLATOW: I mean, it goes - you said there were 700 million people. But it seems like, though, that people have a love-hate relationship with it. You either love it and they use it, or I remember when we have tweets, you know, we have 120,000-plus tweet members, Twitter members.

And if I say something on Twitter saying go to our Facebook page and check it out, they get insulted.

Ms. GANNES: Is that right? They prefer to interact with you in that environment?

FLATOW: They say: Yes, we tweet. We don't do Facebook. And if they did Facebook, they would have to do it exactly that the founder didn't like, and that is to phony-up a page. They'd have to go on as a pseudonym.

Ms. GANNES: Well, I think that's great that they're thinking about their options. But I do see is when I see these new sites start, they build on top of Facebook because Facebook offers some tools called Facebook Connect.

And Twitter actually offers something similar, as well, but the Facebook one is much more widely used, where when you sign on to a new site, you can also plug into your account on Facebook and bring all your friends on Facebook.

And when you post new information on this site, it gets fed back to your Facebook news feed. So it attracts more people to come in. And it's really hard for new sites to kind of let go of that - it's addicting to use Facebook Connect because it makes their services so much more instantly populated with people's friends.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get a quick call in here. Let's to Michael(ph) in - is it Decorah, Iowa?

MICHAEL (Caller): Decorah, but close enough.

FLATOW: Sorry.

MICHAEL: That's okay. On Facebook, I'm a member of the younger generation. I still don't like the fact - I was told that when you click the like button, say for a certain company, it can then follow who your friends are, what your personal information is and use it to try to data-mine for their own personal profit.

And I, for one, don't like that. I know a lot of members of my generation don't mind, but I don't like that. So that would be a suggestion for a social network.

FLATOW: Can I ask what generation you are?

MICHAEL: Well, I'm 14. So I'm not sure how to classify it, but I'm still pretty young. I'm going into high school this year, so...

FLATOW: All right, that's close enough. Thank you, Michael.

MICAHEL: Yeah, bye.

Ms. GANNES: How long have you been on Facebook?

FLATOW: I got rid of him.

Ms. GANNES: Oh, we lost him?

FLATOW: No, I thought he was done. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GANNES: No, I just thought it was an interesting side notice that Consumer Reports recently estimated that there are 7.5 million kids under 13 on Facebook who are lying about their age to be on there, which is...

FLATOW: Oh, is that right?

Ms. GANNES: Potentially interesting. That's right because they're not allowed on Facebook at that age because there are some pretty clear restrictions about how their parents have to let them on the site.

FLATOW: So you have to be 18 and under, or over?

Ms. GANNES: Thirteen.

FLATOW: Thirteen.

Ms. GANNES: Thirteen to 18, you get very special restrictions on your account, and then 18 and above is all one big group.

FLATOW: I guess that is what people don't like. They don't want their information to be used, you know, to go to these different companies to sell you stuff or to follow you around.

Ms. GANNES: Yeah, and Facebook is built to be maximally viral but not maximally private, which is how they've grown so quickly. But when you disagree with something that Facebook is doing with your information, you really have to go deep into those privacy settings to change it.

FLATOW: What feature would you like, in the minute I have left, to see on Facebook or any social network, and what feature would you like to get rid of?

Ms. GANNES: I think that really this issue of friending is really broken. I think that I would - now my group of friends on Facebook, I think I have about 1,000, and I don't accept every friend request that I see.

It's such an odd representation of what my life has been. You see someone at a high school reunion, and you immediately become friends. You meet someone and hang out for, you know, dinner at a conference professionally, and immediately you become friends.

And then, you know, maybe a year later, you're looking at those names in your newsfeed, and you don't really remember even who those people are. But I think there's still a lot of stigma about breaking that relationship and unfriending those people.

And I'd like maybe a little bit of a more nuanced representation.

FLATOW: And are there any of these up-and-coming sites that have that that you have talked about or might recommend trying out?

Ms. GANNES: Absolutely. I think there are different - there's one called Path, which limits users to sharing to only 50 friends. And then there are some of these other ones called Color and Like a Little, which are more represented by the people that you're actually in proximity with, which I think is a nice way to approximate who you care about.

And then there are some like Google's Android, which I think actually could be a potential competitor to Facebook, that really know much better who is in your phone book because they have access to your mobile phone.

FLATOW: Well, thanks for that advice, Liz.

Ms. GANNES: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for coming on. Liz Gannes is senior editor at AllThingsDigital, and you can check out her articles at allthingsd.com.

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