Technology

When Your Social Sites Need Networking


For those hooked up to Facebook and MySpace and similar Web sites, managing diverse profiles can be a chore. That's where aggregators come in

Thursday Bram had become a social-networking butterfly. The recent graduate of the University of Tulsa moved to Laurel, Md., to work as a freelance writer and used online communities to stay in contact with pals near and far. Bram had profiles on MySpace (NWS), Facebook, Twitter, Flickr (YHOO), and LinkedIn. But before long she tired of flitting from one to the next. "I was hoping to sign up for something to bring them all together," Bram says. So she turned to ProfileFly and Tabber, sites that help people do just that.

Within the last year, at least a dozen such aggregators have cropped up. Others include ProfileLinker and Dandelife.com. In January, Henri Duong and brothers Sony and Hong Le started SocialURL, yet another site that helps Web surfers manage increasingly intractable online social lives. "Every other week, social networks were springing up for specific niches and market demographics," says Duong. So far, 10,000 have signed up for the site. Among them is Tom Krieglstein, 26, whose profile contains links to his MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, and del.icio.us pages, as well as his two Typepad blogs. Krieglstein, founder of a startup educational company, Swift Kick, even imported his YouTube (GOOG) videos, including the one where he proposed to his fiancée.

Pulling Together Content

For people who belong to only one or two networks, signing up with an aggregation service may make little sense. But many people amass far more networks than that. SocialURL's founders say females who use the service belong to about 10 sites, while males belong to about half as many. "The average human will be a member of five to seven different networks," says Marc Canter, chief executive officer of Broadband Mechanics, which has a service called PeopleAggregator that connects various networks.

Krieglstein wanted a collection page for the links to his various profiles and other public content spread around the Web and has been testing aggregators to see which one best fits his needs. So far, his favorite is Dandelife because it not only lets him import all manner of links and media onto his profile page but it has added features, such as a timeline of his life.

As useful as these sites may be in pulling together information from other sites onto a single location, they're less helpful when it comes to sending updates to those various sites. In many cases, that's because social networks don't want to share traffic and associated ad dollars with other sites, requiring users to log in before making changes or communicating with friends. "Will a profile aggregator siphon traffic away?" says Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst at eMarketer. "If so, the social networks won't like it very much and will try to shut down the service."

Networks Open to Aggregators?

MySpace tries to accommodate users who want to post content from third parties, such as video clips or other so-called widgets, but shows little tolerance when that content contains a commercial message (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/12/07, "MySpace Plays Chicken with Users").

Facebook has shown a high degree of openness to working with other sites. Last year, the site opened its network to third-party developers and in May it introduced a system that lets outside developers create applications that can be integrated with Facebook (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/24/07, "Facebook Aims to Socialize All Online Services").

ProfileFly recently took advantage of that new openness and launched a widget that lets Facebook users bring links from their ProfileFly.com account directly into their Facebook profile pages. It's one of the first instances of a major social-networking site linking to a social-network aggregator.

Privacy for Some Profiles

Even if sites like ProfileFly succeed in winning over social networks, they have plenty of other hurdles, starting with privacy. For instance, a job applicant may not want Flickr photos of last night's kegger a click away from a LinkedIn profile. "My LinkedIn profile is very different from my LiveJournal profile," says Bram.

That's a lesson she learned the hard way. When Bram worked as a managing editor for The Collegian, the University of Tulsa campus newspaper, she published an article critical of the way the student government was doling out funds to certain organizations. Some students took offense and retaliated by using her Facebook account to find a photo of Bram making what she calls "an inappropriate gesture." A photocopy of the photo ended up being plastered all over campus. "I'm concerned about how much information a person can access about you," says Bram.

Some folks are content to keep their networks separate for other reasons. As people move to different stages of their lives, they often move to new social networks, rather than delete old acquaintances, says Danah Boyd, a social-media researcher and graduate student fellow at University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication. "The only reason people delete each other from a network is because of a vicious breakup," says Boyd. Old social-networking accounts are often like time capsules, akin to a high school yearbook, she says. In cases like that, it may not make sense to aggregate sites, she says.

Missing the MySpace Experience

About nine months ago Harrison Tang and three friends from Stanford started a social-network aggregator, Spokeo. The site acted like an easy-to-use "really simple syndication," or RSS, reader for new blog entries, YouTube videos, photos, and other social-networking feeds. Yet it didn't go as planned. "A social network is like a community and you can't really integrate communities," says Tang. "They have personalities. People who like MySpace don't like Facebook, and vice versa." In May, Tang and his colleagues shuttered Spokeo.

Indeed, people can have many different roles in their lives, some of which may be conflicting. Someone may be a mother, an employee, and a gambler, and people may not want to connect these roles, says Broadband Mechanics' Canter. However Canter suggests that using personas for each of these roles might solve the problem and that people may choose to aggregate specific roles. "Maybe you will want all the mom and church Web sites to connect together," he says, adding that the ability to have separate personas will eventually be included in his product.

Others say that social-networking aggregators, as they operate today, take people out of the immediate experience of a social-networking site such as MySpace or Facebook, which they may enjoy. While Spokeo was still operating, Rob Lindsey, 30, signed up to test it out. The freelance Web developer from Columbia, S.C., uses MySpace every day to keep up with his 120 friends there, but he also visits Friendster and Facebook a few times a week. Lindsey says 95% of his MySpace friends are actual friends and he uses it to catch up with people he sees in the real world and to plan real-life events. But he found that with Spokeo, he felt pulled out of the experience of the social network and missed the interaction. "You're reading updates and your friends become news rather than being friends," he says.

Next: Built into Browsers

Ultimately, Canter says that when we get to the point where open standards proliferate and customers can control their data and move them around however they want, there won't be a need for separate aggregators. For instance, in the future, Canter says that users might want to create a direct relationship with someone who is on a different network, post content from one platform onto another network, or even create a group across networks. "The aggregation of the profile should be inherent in each system," says Canter who adds that most of the social-networking aggregators on the market today are a temporary fix while the industry catches up. In the future, that integration could even happen in the browser, he says.

Williamson of eMarketer points out that Mozilla is developing a Firefox add-on called The Coop that will add social tools to the Web browser. The browser will let users essentially "subscribe" to a friend and easily keep track of that person's pictures, movies, blog posts, and other new information as it comes along. The browser will show friends' faces; to share a photo or other information with a friend will simply require dragging that item onto the friend's face. Says Williamson, "You don't have to visit a Web page—it's all part of your browser and I think we may ultimately be headed in that direction."

But until the job is done by the Web browser or the networks themselves, many people will likely turn to other tools to manage their crowded social-network lives.


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