How Google Could Build a Better Social Network
Games, Gifts, and Third-Party Apps
Third-party apps are clearly a must for future social networks--even though the constant Farmville spam on your newsfeed might be borderline obnoxious, outside sites provide fun games to play, ways to spruce up your profile, and more-personalized browsing. Even Facebook Connect, despite its privacy issues, makes logging in to hundreds of Websites a far less painful experience. If Google Me is going to succeed, it has to offer better (and less annoying) apps.
Following Google's recent purchase of Jambool (the virtual currency platform that powers Social Gold), we can expect to see plenty of apps--especially games--that use this online currency when Google Me rolls out. Because Jambool takes a smaller cut from app revenue than Facebook does with its Credits, game developers have an incentive to create more games for Google Me than for Facebook.
Google already owns Slide, a social media gaming developer, and has invested in Zynga (the developer of Farmville and Mafia Wars), so social games must be a significant part of the company's plan.
Finding Your Niche
Foodies love Yelp, musicians adore MySpace, and the unemployed favor LinkedIn. That's because each of these social networks is designed around getting users together based on a common interest. Even Facebook originated as a social network for college students, and in the beginning you had to register with your university e-mail address. No ".edu," no Facebook profile.
In organizing people based on an interest, however, Facebook has fallen behind. Its "Facebook Group" feature, which it recently axed, was pretty ineffective for organization. Sure, you could send messages to the entire group or initiate a discussion topic, but the group information wouldn't show up on a users' newsfeed and would often get lost in the shuffle.
So far, Facebook's "Like" feature, which connects people who have "liked" the same thing, hasn't been too effective as an organization tool, either.
Social networking veterans may remember Tribe.net and Ning as two solid examples of how to organize special-interest groups. Tribe users create a profile and add friends in a similar fashion as on Facebook; but in this case you can search for an interest, hobby, or location, and Tribe will recommend communities to join based on those interests. These "tribes" share tips, plan events, start threads, and connect in relation to the tribe focus.
Ning, meanwhile, lets you create your own niche social networks devoted to whatever you like. Though putting a social network inside a social network (so you can socialize while you socialize) is a little extreme, we're hoping that Google Me has better support for organizing and managing groups.
It's All About User Control
Allowing users to be more hands-on with their personal profile in terms of layout, content, and how they share their information will give them peace of mind, knowing that they have more control over their own network page.
In a future social network, it would be nice to see a few options for personalization. While MySpace went a little overboard and allowed users to create profiles that were offensively hideous (and hard to read), Facebook leans too far in the opposite direction--you can't change anything.
Orkut fixes that by providing a collection of themes--similar to Gmail themes--that users can apply to their page if they wish. Because the themes were made by Orkut designers, they work with the existing Orkut layout and simply enhance it, adding a touch of personalization without being overbearing.
Of course, no single social network will appeal to everyone, and it's too early to name a real Facebook challenger, but finding a way to fix the bad parts of Facebook and to incorporate successful features of other social networks is a great way to start. Simply throw in one more feature that other networks lack, and you might just have yourself the next big social site.