As someone interested in the intersection of urbanism and ubiquitous computing, I've noticed an increasing demand over the last few years for the services I'm most interested in to incorporate some kind of social-networking element. Unfortunately, I think this is a very, very bad idea.
One of the major arguments of my book, Everyware, is that we not accede to the heedless restructuring of everyday human relations on inappropriate and clumsy models derived from technical systems -- and yet, that's the precise definition of social networking as currently instantiated.
The putatively most-advanced sectors of opinion within the social-networking community of interest offer pleas that such functionality be "portable" and "open" -- that is, that the profiles and relationships that you establish in one service not be locked up in a walled garden, and that each such service use a common and publicly available schema to describe relationship dynamics. These same commentators fail to admit, however, that the whole milieu in which these concerns of openness and portability are contained is badly broken.
Consider, for example, the three non-family friends you regard as being your closest, most trusted, and intimate companions. Would you share precisely the same set of personal information with each of them? Every social-networking system I am aware of forces you to do just that.
Consider how much of your social life is built on, and derives its robustness from, very common patterns -- someone you're attracted to but dislike temperamentally, someone you care for but have little in common with, someone you wished you knew better -- and then try to contain these sentiments meaningfully in the few, penurious options you're offered by the social-networking application of your choice.
Consider also XFN, the "simple way to represent human relationships using hyperlinks," which has been adopted by the popular discussion site MetaFilter to characterize connections among its 50,000-odd members. What's problematic about this? Well, for starters, the quite forthright imposition of values in the XFN schema itself:
Positive or neutral relationships only
Negative relationship terms have been omitted from XFN by design. The authors think that such values would not serve a positive ends [sic] and thus made the deliberate decision to leave them out [...]
The authors do not deny that such negative relationships exist in the real world today. Of course they exist. However, we see no need nor benefit to standardizing such relationships and capturing them in a form which would spread on the Web. There is enough hatred in the world. We should work to eliminate hatred, not to spread it.
Nice sentiments, surely. And I do mean nice: tepid, distinction-obliterating, mealy-mouthed. But due to "well-intentioned" decisions made at design time, it's impossible to use XFN to model anything that even remotely resembles an organic human community. This reductive stance deliberately aims to bleed away every nuance, complication, and complexity that makes any real relationship what it is. Any site or service that uses XFN or anything conceived along similar lines not merely betrays its users, but insults them.
So is the answer simply to model human relations more granularly? To offer users sliders, or color wheels, or some such user-interface widget that will allow them to express multiple axes of sentiment?
No. Experienced designers will see right away that there's something of a Catch-22 lying in wait here for the unwary, in that, given how dynamic social feeling is seen to be, any system supple enough to model the actual range of affinities and sentiments found in life would be an extraordinary hassle for its users.
Finally, all of these reservations, as strong and as heartfelt as they are, do not in the end even begin to address my single most important problem with social-networking systems: Social comfort and coherence require that by far the majority of actual feelings regarding the people in our lives not be made explicit. Having to declare the degree of intimacy you're willing to grant each friend, whether in public and for all to see, or simply so that they see it, is a state of affairs I've described elsewhere as "frankly autistic." It's no way to arrange things as absolutely central to life as friendship -- of that I am sure.
For all of these reasons, technically mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. The only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints from the start.
— Adam Greenfield, Writer, consultant, and instructor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program