For the last six months or so, I've been feeling that the mobile industry is looking at social networking in the wrong way, but I've been finding it hard to articulate exactly why - it's just been a feeling that something is a bit wrong.
In particular, I've been having a lot of doubts about the million different attempts to bridge between social networks, so you have a single "active phonebook", or "active homescreen" which aggregates email and SMS and Facebook and Twitter and Ovi and Gmail and Skype and Vodafone 360 and Orange On and Apple MobileMe and all the rest.
The usual metaphor is to have an icon or picture of a particular contact, with some form of showing all the various ways to message them, get status updates and so forth. In particular, there's usually an over-riding expectation that somehow the mobile phone address book remains the natural "hub" for all of this, either still resident on the device, or abstracted to the cloud for your supposed benefit.
To me, that doesn't gel. It's yet another way of trying to push "unified communications" rather clunkily onto something it doesn't fit, with a good dose of unfriendly "customer lock-in" as well.
Now I'm not a human interactions or useability expert, but I'd like to think I'm reasonably well-attuned to the ways in which people use both mobile and Internet communications. I can talk about "social value" and easily describe why stupid concepts like SMS-to-the-TV destroy the inherent, implicit value in a particular form of communications.
My thoughts are starting to resolve into a couple of separate areas here:
- Mobile phones - and especially the inbuilt address book - are great for person-to-person communications. But they tend to be lousy for orchestrating groups of people or events.
- The web tends to be good for free-form communications, but only between selected groups. With the exception of email, most web-based comms is within rich but limited "islands" - chat rooms, fan pages, blogs and comments, IM communities, VoIP peers and so forth
- A lot of the value in social networks involves the interaction of individuals with groups. Sending a party invitation to 50 people on Facebook with directions. Messaging your community of blog followers via RSS and so forth.
- Certain forms of communication integrate better than others. Emails have attachments and embedded links and are easy to "cc". Skype video and file-sharing. SMS for ubiquity. But *all are different* and risk losing their individual characteristics if they are blended.
- People like to keep their communities segregated by default. Work contacts, personal contacts, very personal contacts... but they are too lazy to administer that segregation actively. It's much easier just to have silo'd islands of acquaintances and groups, even if they overlap, because you don't have to *actively administer* membership. If you just know all your work contacts are on Skype, then you quickly learn not to use Skype for certain types of messaging - you don't change your status to "feels very hungover this morning".
- The mobile handset address-book metaphor is useless for things like group membership and events, as it's usually too oriented around a number and specific "communications sessions" that it's hoping to enable. This is especially true for IMS-based variants, where the whole underlying premise it creating billable events. Do you expect to be charged to "like" someone else's status, or to RSVP to an event invitation?
- Increasingly, messages are duplicated through different channels for notification purposes. Facebook updates are sent to email. Event reminders are sent by SMS as well. Do you want to de-duplicate your active, aggregated homescreen whenever any of your contacts does anything?
I feel that I'm a bit closer to having a holistic view on how all this should work, but I'm not there yet. It is interesting that some of the most significant growthand behavioural trends (and viral buzz) are in new, completely-isolated islands like BlackBerry BBM, rather than aggregated platforms like 360 or Ovi.
Comments very definitely welcome....