The same question people used to ask about PCs can be asked of social networks: Were our lives easier or harder, better or worse, simpler or more complex, before they came around? The answer is yes. For some folks, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace seem nearly as indispensable as e-mail, but creating and maintaining these virtual circles of friends turns out to be quite a bit of work, often necessarily so. Here are the ten things that bug me most about today's social networking services.
10. MySpace Kitsch
Unlike Facebook, which adheres to a relatively rigid blue-on-white, three-column design, MySpace lets you decorate your page with background images, themes, and unconventional layouts. That flexibility provides just enough rope for many MySpacers, and the results range from ugly to completely unreadable. Some MySpace pages are so poorly designed that they can crash the hardiest browser--and this alone has caused many social networkers to flee the aesthetic chaos of MySpace for the relative calm of Facebook. Thankfully, some enterprising script authors have come up with scripts that tone down the MySpace bling and clutter: One of my favorite MySpace scripts puts a button on the screen that turns custom page styles on and off with a single click.
9. The Worms Crawl In
8. LinkedIn Is UpTight
Almost anything goes on MySpace, but not so on LinkedIn, where the strictly-business motif discourages personal expression outside of a photo (a fairly recent innovation), a status line, and standard resume entries. Sure, the whole point of LinkedIn is to put your most professional foot forward, but really, LinkedIn, couldn't we loosen the necktie just a little? LinkedIn may never support psychedelic backdrops or party photos, but it could do a lot more to help you project something more than an utterly antiseptic persona.
7. Mobile Social Networking Still Kinda Weak
Imagine receiving real-time, location-based status messages from your friends as they make the rounds of the local bars and restaurants. Although Facebook, MySpace, and other services are gradually adding mobile-phone features, that kind of mobile social networking is still just a dream for a number of reasons. First, to be successful, it has to work across multiple wireless carriers and social networks--no easy feat. Second, services such as Dodgeball require you to actively post location updates before your friends can find you. Until GPS-equipped phones can update networks with location information automatically, it's still easier just to call.
6. Ning: Too Much Porn
Ning, which lets you set up your own custom social network, has attracted attention for its ability to create communities that are more functional than those created through competing services from Google and Yahoo. Nonprofits, support groups, and hobbyists have found their homes on Ning. But, as with many new neighborhoods on the Web, the seedier side of the culture is often the first to move in. As on Second Life, pornography reportedly comprises a significant percentage of the communities Ning hosts. Flickr faces a similar issue, but it shields unsuspecting visitors from seeing adult content through default filters (that is, you must actively opt out of the filter). Ning offers no such setting, which makes the site tough to recommend to schools and families.