This week I was fortunate to have dinner with some old college buddies. We talked about families, wives or girlfriends, kids, and of course, jobs. All of us studied computer science and took classes together. What struck me is that years later everyone had specialized in a particular area. In fact, it was almost difficult for us to communicate. Each person worked at a specific task, usually using a single programming language. While we might have heard of the software the others used, we really weren't familiar enough with the other jobs or languages to discuss them in depth.
Gone were the college days of studying an entire field, replaced by the need for specialization.
When we think of social networking, we probably think of 'friending' people and the progression from MySpace to Facebook to Twitter. However, you could make the argument that the Internet has been a social network since the first computers were connected, and that what we really have is a period of growth and specialization.
Every year the Internet reaches out further around the planet as more people gain access. But there are still billions of people who have never sent an email or updated their status or wrote a 140-character tweet. So the potential for growth is still large and continual.
At the same time, I think we're going to see an increase in specialization among people who've used the Internet for a while. While the biggest social networks like Facebook and Twitter are 'general purpose' sites, we also have LinkedIn for business or Goodreads for reading. A natural sorting or organization has occurred as people on the Internet seek out others who share their interests.
For instance, I frequently visit Boardgamegeek, which is all about table top games. It has areas where people post images of the game boards, reviews of the latest games, games for sale, videos explaining how to play, forums and blogs. This site does not use 'friending' or 'following,' so it may not fit what most people think of as a social network, but it is an active community of people with similar interests.
Absolutewrite is another good example because the interface may not look like a social network, but the site's extensive forums provide for a constant flow of information and opinion among those who read and write. And recently I happened on the Hardcorenerdity site, which provides news about science fiction and fantasy across the spectrum of media from television to movies to books and comics. What's interesting here is that their 'About' page makes it clear they hope to get contributions from members both in the form of comments and blog posts. So again, it may appear to be a standard news site, but it contains the information sharing and interactivity we associate with social networks.
With Facebook there is an initial flurry of activity when you join, followed by an eventual leveling out of 'friending' as you track down all your old high school pals. Twitter's model is different since you can choose to 'follow' someone without going through the 'friend' request transaction, so you may interact with more strangers, but separating out what you are interested in can be difficult. Just as other writers have described the flood of data on the Internet as 'trying to take a sip from a fire hose,' Twitter can flood you with tweets from people you don't know, about things you're not interested in.
This is why I think we'll see a natural sorting take place as people seek out others with their particular interests and socialize with them. And in many ways, that's not much different than what we do at parties, where hopefully you find yourself in the kitchen talking about astronomy or hiking or whatever with an enthusiastic group of new friends.
(The pic is of Shibuya in Tokyo, Japan, from everything-everywhere.com. Lots of people crossing the street, each heading to their particular destination, but moving with the larger flow.)