To start with, the current generation of existing social networks are narrowly focused on particular groups. Teenagers tend to gather on MySpace. Business professionals use sites like Ryze and LinkedIn. Writers tend to like LiveJournal. Each of these groups is attracted to a system that caters to its preferred modes of social interaction, and as a result the look-and-feel of these networks are quite different.
In addition in existing networks, there is inevitably an element that refuses to follow (or is oblivious to) the social contract that has been set in place. This gives rise to problems with such disruptive users as spammers, trolls, stalkers, and serial complainers.
To tackle the first of these issues, look and feel can be easily separated from the basic functioning of the social network software, so that one can provide one system that is almost everything to almost everybody. Each participating member would see a different user interface depending on which group they interact with. There need not even be any overt indication that such social networks as (for example) www.ravers.com and www.christianconservatives.com are hosted on the same network and handled by the same software.
In effect, there would be a network of networks; each networked group free to build its own culture in its own online space. The interconnected nature of these networks would only become apparent when someone joined multiple groups and found that their one account let them switch seamlessly between their different groups.
To aid in this seamless interoperation, the software would allow a user to carefully partition what information was public and which was private to particular individuals, groups, and the network as a whole. A businessman might simultaneously be a member of groups customized for marketing directors, golf enthusiasts and homosexuals, but might well wish to present themselves very differently to these three groups. They might (for example) have a staid business profile for the first group, a flashy and deliberately tacky profile for the second, and a completely anonymous one for the third.
Once such a basic network-of-networks with its security and privacy models are defined, there is a huge range of additional features that can be provided on top of them. Just a few among these are:
- Fllavoured Contacts. Most social networks allow one to have links to 'friends', but this would be too general a connection for a truly universal social network. We would allow links to be distinguished by the relationship they implied. One could have 'friend' links, 'business contact' links, 'sports buddy' links and so on as the user desired. They could also associate an intensity so as to indicate how much of a friend someone was, how sexy they appeared, or how trustworthy they were as a business partner, and so on. These could be kept private or aggregated to provide ranking predictions for new contacts (which could, in turn, be used to inform an automated introduction service).
- Reputation systems and ranking. As much of how people interact socially is governed by considerations of status and social ranking, the system could explicitly keep track of each user and provide Google-like page ranks relative to each of their various interest groups. By careful consideration of how these ranks are calculated, the system could be made largely self-policing by automatically discouraging disruptive or destructive behaviour.
- 'Private' interests. In some cases it might be desired to hide particular interests in a profile from everyone who does not have that same interest in their own profiles.
- Full multimedia support. Current social interaction sites are moving to support the hosting of images, but I think it should go much further. The system should support the hosting of all kinds of digital content, including photos, videos, sound, and software. Where appropriate it should allow one to easily post a 'clip' from the middle of a sound or video file on one's account.
- Full Internet interactivity. As an aid to gaining widespread adoption, the system should cater to a wide variety of different Internet protocols and interaction types, including SMS messages, voice messages, web cams, email gateways, RSS gateways, Usenet gateways, news services, and even other competing social networks. The more inclusive the system, the lower the barrier to migrating from existing systems that people may already be members of.
I could probably go on for page after page detailing the features that should exist in a good online social network, and that are missing in all current offerings, but this should give a good idea of what features the next generation should provide.