Towards Dynamic Networking

The next step-change in sophistication of social network will be a move from static to dynamic connections.

A post on Google+ by Gideon Rosenblatt, along with comments from Colin Walker, got me thinking about the way we define our social networks and the people we interact with. This post isn’t exclusively about Google+ and is written in intentionally platform-neutral terms – although Google+ is my own social network of choice and possibly the most likely to adopt some of the principles I’m describing.

Traditional social networking is based around the concept of a slowly-changing list of contacts with whom a user interacts. The user curates their list of contacts according to their interests – they can add lists of people who regularly post about a particular shared topic; people they work or have worked with; people they went to school with; people who live in the same locality and so on.

This model inherently suffers from two basic problems.

  • Firstly – inertia. The list is static and under the control of  the user. Whilst networking platforms frequently have ways of suggesting likely new contacts to a user, this is a relatively slow process. Users don’t have time to spend endlessly looking at and evaluating potential new contacts. The list changes slowly.
  • Secondly, in most networking platforms, the list is one-dimensional. Once you’ve decided to add a contact, you get all of their output. Regardless of the reason you chose the contact, whether they’re posting about their breakfast, their political views, sports results or photos of their cat, you get the lot. This might in some cases be what you want, but certainly for me, it isn’t – I want to read content based on my interests and not the rest (whilst acknowledging that other people will have different interests which intersect with  mine).

This seems to me to be very first-generational. With the increasing ability for recognition of content and sentiment in text; image analysis; more and more precision in location identification, categorisation and tracking, networks are able to know or infer a lot about an individual and their activities, habits and interests and what other people share one or more of those activities and interests.

At any one time, I belong to many different virtual groups of people – from the high-level, demographic and relatively static (I’m a man, I live in the UK, I speak English) through the mid-level habitual (I read content on Theology, I take photographs, I commute on the train on a particular route, I go to the gym after work) to the instantaneous low-level (I’m in town shopping, I’m in the pub, I’m watching the match). The social networks I belong to know all this and more. Any one of these virtual groups contains other users who are doing the same thing (in a pub or the same pub); habitually do the same thing (they read Theology, they go to the gym too); or are in the same demographic group. All of these groupings are candidates for dynamic networking – connecting me with the people I’m likely to share an interest with.

The middle group is probably the most interesting. This goes beyond the scope of what the recent wave of ‘passive’ location-aware apps delivers – they’re mostly about using your current location to find other people in the same place. This is about recognising the place and, more importantly, the type of places you go to regularly, what content you write about them and while you’re there, and building a profile of your habits and interests to match against others’. This clearly needs a decent taxonomy of place types, and accurate categorisation of places into that taxonomy – so it knows you regularly visit a gym, a bookshop or a football game and profiles you accordingly.

Addressing the second problem – the one-dimensional nature of connections – goes along the same lines. A combination of the content and context of each post can be used to tag the content with one or more of the user’s habits – and it’s the combination of user and habit that forms the basis for a connection. So the network knows when I’m writing about theology, or commuting, or football, and another user can connect with me on one or more of those topics.

The social networks we use today all have the capability to do all this – I believe it’s only a matter of time before these kinds of features start to show up in mainstream networks and we’ll all regard today’s mechanisms, whether friends, circles or followers, as archaic and unfit for purpose.