Everyone and their cross-eyed cousin already knows that I don't use Facebook. But it's not not untrue that I don't use any social networking services while I am bodysurfing on the Internets. I happen to visit a quite a few on a day-to-day basis - but unlike most of the folk on Facebook and the like, little things like “privacy” and “usefulness” come into play when I'm making a decision about whether or not I should cuddle up to the newest, trendiest Totally Interesting Thought-provoking Social Network (hereafter referred to as “TITSnet”). Not all social networks are created equal, and I don't treat them all the same either. There are networks where I'll use my full name as my username, and there are a couple very good reason for this - pseudonyms are for cowards, serial killers and fairies, and I want an easy way to keep track of all the stupid shit I say on the Internet. Fact: Over 100% of the corwardly / racist / ignorant comments that people see fit to post for the world to see are done behind the relative safety of anonymity. I think anonymity is a precious commodity not to be wasted on triflin' things like racism and such, so I save my pseudonyms for more important things like international espionage and / or dating websites. Sometimes I'll kill two birds with one stone and show off my multiple passports to my blind date and then we'll eat the birds. I get asked - yes, like, everyday - about which social networks I recommend / use. The short answer is none / lots. The long answer is "I'm about to tell you, so pipe down!". So, in the interest of pouring some much-needed chlorine into the e.coli infested swimming waters of the Internet, please enjoy this small collection of my S.N.O.T.S (Social Networks Of The Season):
“Using a music recommendation system called "Audioscrobbler", Last.fm builds a detailed profile of each user's musical taste by recording details of all the songs the user listens to, either on the streamed radio stations, the user's computer or some portable music devices. This information is transferred to Last.fm's database ("scrobbled") via a plugin installed into the user's music player. The profile data is then displayed on the user's profile page. The site offers numerous social networking features and can recommend and play artists similar to the user's favourites.” What does it do? Simply put, the way I use last.fm is to allow “Audioscrobbler”, a helper application that watches which songs you play on your computer / mp3 player (plugins exist for nearly every mp3 software player under the sun) to track which songs I'm listening to, after which it uploads that data to last.fm's servers. Over time, this helps build a nice musical profile for yourself that you can browse in a myriad of views. It's also got a music recommendation engine based on what you already listened, and a web radio. Is it a “real” social network? Yes - last.fm does a great job of linking your profile with those of your friends. I don't use the social networking aspects of the service all that much myself, but if you're into that whole music-sharing-with-your-friends thing, it's definitely got some nice social web features you'll like. For some reason, though, none of my real friends seem to be accepting my friend requests on last.fm - must just be a problem with the registration system or something... Should I sign up? If you listen to a lot of your music on your computer / compatible mp3 player, want a nice way to follow your listening habits over time, and don't mind sharing your this information with last.fm / the world at large, then yes. But if your friends have accounts and you just want to spy on what they're listening to, you don't need to register. How about privacy? They have fairly granular privacy settings you can adjust, affecting the visibility of both your activity on the network as well as your music charts. Your music listening data is probably harvested for other purposes as well, but frankly I'm not too concerned about what the CIA thinks about my Lionel Ritchie / Vanilla Ice party playlist. The trivial nature of the metadata makes me not care so much about privacy in this case, when compared to more sensitive / private information that is exposed on, say, Facebook.
“Digg is a social news website made for people to discover and share content from anywhere on the Internet, by submitting links and stories, and voting and commenting on submitted links and stories. Voting stories up and down is the site's cornerstone function, respectively called digging and burying. Many stories get submitted every day, but only the most Dugg stories appear on the front page.” What does it do? Usually, I'd go to the CBC or BBC to get some of my news, with the rest coming from Digg and the Daily Show / Colbert Report. I don't feel I'm missing much at all - Digg actually proves to be a fairly accurate and unbiased representation of what news items folks are talking about right now. Basically, people submit stories to Digg via their browser, and these stories are voted up or down by the rest of the community. Is it a “real” social network? Yes - every member in the community can participate in deciding which stories get promoted. In practice, there are some members who form large cliques and become notorious for their ability to get their own stories promoted, but for the most part things seem to even out. You can also view what your friends are digging. Should I sign up? You can use / view the website without registering an account. If you want to participate, vote on stories (and comments) and stuff, then you'll need to register an account. How about privacy? Digg doesn't seem to require much more information than an email address to get started. You can add in more detail, and as with every social networking there's a definite possibility that your activity on the network is somehow tracked and aggregrated, but the impact that data would have in the wrong hands is probably not very severe.
“The CouchSurfing Project is a free, Internet-based, international hospitality service, and it is currently the largest hospitality exchange network. Members use the website to coordinate contacts and home accommodation (or "surf" others' "couches") with other network members around the world. The website allows the creation of extensive profiles, and uses an optional credit card verification system, a personal vouching system, and personal references to increase security and trust between members.“ What does it do? If you're a frequent traveler like me, you're all too aware of the costs and headaches associated with lodging in an unfamiliar city. The CouchSurfing Project helps you find people who are willing to let you crash at their place when you visit their city, and announce that you have a crash space for others who are visiting. It's simple, elegant, and has a very granular search function when it comes to finding a couch / bed / barn floor to stay on when you're traveling on a budget. Is it a “real” social network? I don't know if you can get more social than sleeping at someone's house. It's one of those rarest of rare social networks - the kind that's meant to lead to face-to-face interaction without being a dating / hook-up site. I've made a number of real friends through the service, and in the process save from putting money into hotels, leaving me plenty extra to spend on real travel necessities like booze, drugs and hookers. Sike, haha - I don't drink! Should I sign up? Totally, if you want to travel on a budget, or have a crash space that you don't mind sharing, and “enjoy meeting people”... How about privacy? Obviously, since the eventual goal of the goal is to promote a face-to-face meeting and basically opening up your home to somebody, privacy is crucially important here. CouchSurfing only facilitates the first steps between potential hosts and guests - it's then up to the users to decide how to proceed and how fast to reveal their personal information (like, you know, their address and stuff). The website does a good job of educating users about what information is shared, and goes out of its way to build security and trust into the service. All of the people I've met on the site have been awesome (and often hot - but it's not a dating website!) and I've only had positive experiences using it.
“identi.ca is an open source social networking and micro-blogging service. Based on Laconica, a micro-blogging software package built on the OpenMicroBlogging specification, users may send updates, or text-based posts, up to 140 characters long in a similar way to Twitter. Micro-blogging is a form of multimedia blogging that allows users to send brief text updates or micromedia such as photos or audio clips and publish them, either to be viewed by anyone or by a restricted group which can be chosen by the user. These messages can be submitted by a variety of means, including text messaging, instant messaging, email or the web.” What does it do? Like twitter, it's a microblogging platform you can use to send / read other folks' short text updates. Things like pointing to a cool / timely article, asking a quick question or announcing something important to the world. In practice, however, most of the stuff you'll find on any microblogging service hovers between constantly plugging one's own work and horrible, horrible attempts at deep, thoughtful haikus. I do follow a couple of accounts in my RSS reader, however - such as unitedbikers, who always posts interesting motorcycle news. Is it a “real” social network? So, I never got into this whole microblogging thing, especially Twitter. Twitter did not keep someone out of jail. A mobile phone did. “Tweeting” is not a verb, 140 characters at a time won't change the world, and no one wants to hear about what you're having for dinner anymore. All these reasons and more are pretty nicely summarized by a recent post on fagstein's blog. I do, however, appreciate the concept of an accessible, quick-and-dirty mechanism for people to ask and answer short questions in small groups. So, I'm intrigued by the idea of a federated service where I can run my own microblogging daemon on my own server, connected to any of the specific targeted social networks I currently work on. For instance, I can totally imagine plugging a laconica instance onto a Drupal install we have for scientists to have a sort of “super-scientist-lazyweb”, where they can type a question into their chat client and quickly get back 5 - 10 responses from their peers. Instant gratification, easy-in, easy-out, no overhead, no commitment. The social networking mainstays - friends lists, APIs, etc - are present in identi.ca and these other microblogging services are definitely more useful in groups, than, say, by yourself. Although come to think a microblogging service consisting only of myself would probably be a lot of fun too. Should I sign up? You don't need to sign up to follow other folks via RSS or read public notices. You do need an account for the social networking stuff, of course. What's cool is that you can also sign in using OpenID, which is a plus.
- Craigslist, Escapist Magazine, Chowhound, Drupal.org, Ubuntu Forums, etc ad infinitum.
“Craigslist is a centralized network of online communities, featuring free online classified advertisements – with jobs, internships, housing, personals, erotic services, for sale/barter/wanted, services, community, gigs, résumés, and pets categories – and forums on various topics.” What does it do? I sold my car on craigslist. I've sold and bought lots of computer stuff on craigslist. I've hired artists, shopped for a motorcycle, gotten restaurant recommendations when visiting a new city, and had a few chuckles at the rants and raves sections as well. It's a bulletin board. On the Internet. A bulletin board is a lot like a forum. What's a forum? Well a forum, one could say, is a lot like a bulletin board. Escapist Magazine has some of the best posts (and videos) related to gaming and gaming tangents like art, politics and society. Chowhound is definitely one of my most visited sites - I get a good deal of restaurant recommendations, reviews and regurtitations from the very active Montreal / Quebec section, which is in general far more accurate and balanced than the reviews you see in the paper. When I travel, it's a goldmine of information for the spots to hit to get my Chow Hound Down. Or get down on my chow like a hound. Sorry for that. Drupal.org and the Ubuntu Forums are err, forums, for a CMS I use a lot (Drupal) and the operating system I run on my computer, which I'm constantly fucking with (figuratively, of course) because I love being able to always fine tune how I'm interacting with my machines. Inevitably, I end up doing something wrong and breaking shit. The Ubuntu Forums almost always helps get me back on my feet instantly. Is it a “real” social network? So the real reason I wanted to include these “Web 1.0” traditional forum-type websites in this list is to see a) how many normal folks - not social scientists - consider a web forum to be a 'social network', and b) maybe have some people question what the term “social networking” evokes for them, specifically with regards to the World Wide Web. Is a static corporate website a social network? No? How about a blog that doesn't allow comments? A blog that allows comments? A web forum like those mentioned above? Myspace? Facebook? Your local classifieds section? Your email inbox? To me, these simple forums are as social a network as I can ask for. They are purpose-built, efficient, and provide a sense of community by tying people together via a common interest that they probably had before they joined the network - I loved food long before I discovered Chowhound, for instance. What are your criteria for what defines a social network? Should I sign up? Umm - they're forums. You supply an email address, create a username and a password. You log in, ask stuff, answer stuff, sell stuff, buy stuff. That just about covers it, doesn't it? How about privacy? You can generally get away without providing any personally idenfiable information on most forums.
- Xbox Live / Games for Windows / online gaming / casual gaming networks.
“Xbox Live is an online multiplayer gaming and digital media delivery service created and operated by Microsoft Corporation. It is currently the only online gaming service (on consoles) that charges users a fee to play multiplayer gaming. It was first made available to the Xbox system in 2002. An updated version of the service became available for the Xbox 360 console at that system's launch in 2005. On the Windows platform, the service is named Games for Windows - Live, which makes most aspects of the system available on Windows computers.” What does it do? I like games, especially PC games. Passive media like books, movies and such are important, because they constantly refine the way I think and supply ideas and thoughts that I might never have had otherwise. Games, however, do something above and beyond that: they challenge me. Like traveling to new country and living within a new culture, they help shed light on my own decision-making and how I'd react in situations that are outside of the norm, different than what I've been immersed in so far. Online games take that a step further, and actually allow me to immerse myself within the author's universe, while simultaneously interacting with interesting people who may very well be at the other end of the world. We are experiencing a common setting and living inside a shared universe, and even though we're thousands of miles apart we can work together towards a shared goal. Said shared goal generally involves, or is a variant thereof, replacing the other team's internal organs with bullets. Is it a “real” social network? I suppose it depends who you ask, and it depends what kind of game you're talking about. I tend to stay away from the long, drawn out, soul-sucking involving games like World of Warcraft, mainly because I think the source material is lame but also because the time commitment and amount of work you need to put in to be any good requires you to have absolutely no life. World of Warcraft is, by all indications the Facebook of online gaming. They are both populated mainly by trolls, goblins and ghouls with too much time on their hands and not enough to do. They both require you to invest considerable amounts of time, clicking, and typing to get anything worthwhile out of them. They both are kind of pointless if you don't play well with others. Facebook is free while WoW is expensive, but WoW allows you to slay mystical beings in 3D, so I suppose that kind of balances off. But these kinds of games, MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games), are probably considered the most 'social' of the current generation of online games, because of the persistent relationships you can build (through wasting away countless hours of your life) with others and the strong communication tools that allow for coordination within the game world. Myself, I play games where I can jump in, shoot / explode / stab / run over a whole bunch of people, taunt them through my microphone, and then leave. I don't have time to put in 20+ hours a week to 'build up a character' only to have him beheaded by someone who put in 21+. I want instant gratification, laughs and something to help me unwind, even if it's with folks that I've never met before and I'll probably never meet again. Does the transient nature of casual online gaming make it any less social than persistent gaming worlds / relationships? Should I sign up? Games are fun! Even if you don't like repeatedly shooting people in the face (what's wrong with you?!?), there are plenty of non-violent games on the PC (as well as online components to most of the games on any of the major consoles) that you can enjoy. How about privacy? There have been some privacy concerns with most of the major gaming networks, notably Microsoft's. The defaults on most of the networks - and on most social networks in general, actually - are usually lax on privacy, opting to sacrifice anonymity for functionality. This is a bit of a problem for me, so I tend to stick to games where the online lobby feature is something built into the game itself, rather than using a 3rd party service like Microsoft's or Sony's or Gamespy's. I'm not so worried about people finding out that I have a new top score in World of Goo, but I'd rather not anyone know about the police station I just firebombed.
“Wikipedia is a free, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia's 12 million articles (2.7 million in English) have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, and almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone who can access the Wikipedia website.” What does it do? It's wikipedia. It's a place with information and stuff. People go there to read things and learn stuff written and learned by other people. It's an encyclopaedia that anyone, especially idiots, can contribute to. Is it a “real" social network? Well let's see - people communicate in the talk pages. They jointly contribute content to a page to make it better / worse. I don't know much, however, about the nature of relationships built between Wikipedia contributors. In the case of the casually active anonymous editor, the interaction between actual people is quite limited on Wikipedia; most of the interaction takes place between the user and the then-functionally-static web page that she / he has stumbled upon and changes. The next time she / he stumbles upon that page, it may be different, but the changes are not clearly dynamic - it is the same basic page with different content. Does it really matter whether it was a series of other people or a robotic drone that made those changes? Should I sign up? I'm inclined to think the vast majority of wikipedia users are simply people who come to the site for information and leave. You don't need an account to edit most pages. How about privacy? Despite being a fairly open project, Wikipedia has had more than its share of privacy concerns raised against it. Before you sign up, ask yourself what you really need an account on wikipedia for and what you intend to do with it. You can already access / view all of wikipedia for free, anonymously, without an account.
“BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol used to distribute large amounts of data. BitTorrent is one of the most common protocols for transferring large files, and by some estimates it accounts for about 35% of all traffic on the entire Internet. The initial distributor of the complete file or collection acts as the first seed. Each peer who downloads the data also uploads it to other peers, even after they have dismounted the original seed. Because of this, BitTorrent is extremely efficient. One seed is needed to begin spreading files between many peers. The additions of more seeds increases the likelihood of a successful connection exponentially. Relative to standard Internet hosting, this provides a significant reduction in the original distributor's hardware and bandwidth resource costs." What does it do? Note that here I'm referring to Bittorrent as a protocol, and not to Torrent websites. This is because I want to use it as an example to raise one more brilliant question on the nature of social networks... Is it a “real" social network? ... because when I'm downloading a torrent, I'm simultaneously receiving and sending packets of data from and to hundreds, sometimes thousands of people around the world. We never speak. We never meet. We are, for the most part, completely anonymous to one another. We don't really have any interaction with each other at all beyond our torrent software pulling and pushing bytes to each other. However, we are helping each other. We are sharing information, tiny pieces of a whole, that will allow us all to posess it when we're done. We are bartering 0s and 1s like sentient worker ants in cyberspace. Does the lack of deliberate communication define the lack of the social aspect of the network? Should I sign up? Some people use bittorrent for legitimate tasks, such as spreading public domain shows and movies, open source software and so on. Others - most, perhaps - use it to download ilegally copied games, music and movies. Being one of the most efficient protocols for transferring large files by its very nature, it isn't going away soon. You don't need to “sign up" to use bittorrent - you just need a bittorrent client and a desire to download stuff. How about privacy? It is not all that difficult for someone with minimal tech skills to glean the identity of anyone who's downloading or seeding an illegal torrent. It's even easier for, say, the MPAA or the RIAA. The golden rule is: Don't download anything that you can't afford to justify - both legally and morally. So, that's my non-exhaustive list of social networking-ish services I'm using these days. Knowing about my anal retentiveness (retentity? retent?) with regards to online privacy, are there any others you'd like to bring up? What's your definition of a social network?