Saturday, October 23rd, 2004
In 1980 a small toy invented by Erno Rubik, a Hungarian obsessed with 3D geometry, became a smash hit. The almost impossible to solve Rubik’s Cube was everywhere - in the shops, on TV, in the record books, but mainly in bits on frustrated children’s floors.
I, like millions of other kids, had a Rubik’s Cube and I, like millions of other kids, never managed to actually solve the problem. Instead I resorted to either taking the thing apart or trying unsuccessfully to peel off the coloured plastic stuck to the cube’s faces so as to rearrange the colour without rearranging the cube.
By 1981, demand for original Rubik’s Cubes outstripped supply. By the end of 1982 over 100 million cubes had been sold. By 1983 the fad was over and the Rubik’s Cube was no longer in production.
One of the problems with the Rubik’s Cube was that although there was huge initial curiosity as to what this thing was, once you got your hands on one and realised that it was harder to solve than it looked, you just lost interest. There was no point to the cube. Even my brother, who could solve it fairly quickly, got bored with demonstrating his prowess after a while. It became very ’so what?’.
Twenty years later, and now we have social networking, and we’re going through the process all over again. A new social network springs up, people join up, play with the features for a bit, get bored and then can’t even be bothered to leave. In fact, so passé have social networking sites become that the accepted acronym for them is not something like SNS (for ’social networking site’) but YASN (’yet another social network’).
Yet, the rise of the YASN seems unstoppable. Despite the fact that the business end is covered by sites like LinkedIn, the pet angle by Dogster, Catster and Hamsterster, and geek tracking by Orkut, YASNs continue to proliferate like weeds.
The latest YASN that I’ve received an invitation for is aSmallWorld (UPDATE: I no longer have a login for aSmallWorld so please do not email and ask me for an introduction):
aSmallWorld is an invitation-only online community which is not open to the public. It is designed for those who already have strong connections with one another and want to create new ones. It allows you to interact more effectively with like minded individuals who share similar friends, interests, and schedule. We list the most popular restaurants, hotels, and night clubs in over 60 major cities, summer and winter resorts and we keep track of major events, parties, exhibitions, film and music festivals and sporting events such as motor racing, tennis, sailing, golf, and others. Our goal is to become the leading global social networking community.
aSmallWorld is attempting to create an exclusive community, but exclusively what is not obvious. Rich? Successful? Stupid?
Once inside aSmallWorld, it becomes clear that it has little to offer - classified ads, forums, job search, city guides - that actually differentiates it from any of the other YASNs. If I want a job, there’s LinkedIn. If I want a city guide there’s Time Out. Classifieds? Loot or eBay.
Thus I look at aSmallWorld and I see the next step down from a YASN - a YAPSN, Yet Another Pointless Social Network. The people I am linked to in aSmallWorld are the same people I talk to on AIM or IRC, the same people I’m linked to in LinkedIn or Orkut. Thus for me, personally, aSmallWorld has no added value - there’s just no point hanging out there.
UPDATE: I no longer have a login for aSmallWorld so please do not email and ask me for an introduction.
(Not that I hang out much in Orkut or LinkedIn either, to be honest. Once the initial flush of enthusiasm waned, there really was very little to keep me going back to either, but at least there is enough use from them to keep them in my bookmarks list.)
Now, in stark comparison to aSmallWorld are two sites: Last.FM, sister site to Audioscrobbler, and Flickr. I consider both of these sites to be social networking sites, even though it would be possible to characterise Last.FM as a music site and Flickr as a photography site. But both sites have at their heart not the music or the photos but social networking and the sharing of personal information. Without their social networks, both sites would be pointless.
Last.FM provides a way for users to easily share their music, giving others the opportunity not only to see which songs you have recently been listening to but also to actually listen to the music that you listen to. You can also find other users with a similar taste, discuss your favourite music, and buy music to add to your collection. All playlist updating is done using the free Audioscrobbler plug-in which allows your chosen music software to report what it plays directly to both Audioscrobbler and Last.FM.
As Joi points out, the social aspect of Last.FM is key - as you listen to someone else’s playlist, they can introduce you to new music and subtly shape your own listening habits:
I found editorgrrl in my last.fm neighborhood. She and I have extremely similar taste, but she seems to have a bunch of stuff that I don’t have in my profile so I listen to her personal radio a lot. I notice my profile becoming more and more similar to hers as her playlist starts to influence my playlist. I just noticed that this feels a bit like online music profile stalking…
I also realized that if you had a crush on someone, you could listen to their music all day long. You would show up in their neighborhood. You would get to know their music. Or… you would keep hitting “ban” and you would realize that you should NOT have a crush on them.
Joi has hit the nail on the head as regards the one thing that differentiates Last.FM from all the other YAPSNs - using Last.FM gives you the feeling of closeness with other users. Music is such an intensely emotional experience, and in sharing music you’re sharing those emotions too. For people to whom music is important, knowing what bands someone likes is an essential part of the getting-to-know-you (or stalking) process. In terms of added value, Last.FM hits the spot perfectly.
Another site that is worth a lot more than the paper it’s not printed on is Flickr, the photo sharing site. Like Last.FM, Flickr allows users to share something emotional and personal - their photographs. Although I signed up for Flickr months ago, it’s only recently that I’ve started using it to upload photos and I am a complete convert. Not only is the uploading, metatagging and labelling process very simple, but it’s really easy for people to other people to leave notes and to make you a contact, friend or family.
Flickr gives you a glimpse - literally - into your friends’ and acquaintances’ lives, something which again brings you closer. Rather than being just people on the end of a keyboard, Flickr rounds out your online friendships by providing a strong visual aspect to your interactions. You get to see their world through their eyes.
As it happens, this neatly complements the auditory enhancements to the relationship provided by Last.FM.
If I had to put money on it, I’d say that aSmallWorld won’t last, but both Flickr and Last.FM will. The reason I say this is because they provide clear, definite benefits to social networking - it’s not just networking for networking’s sake. If I had a criticism, it would be that Flickr and Last.FM’s social tools could be improved, particularly in the location of friends and FOAFs.
However, both sites are still essentially in their infancy, and succeeding releases provide improved usability and feature sets. Whilst I’ve only recently started uploading to Flickr, I have been looking at other people’s photos for a while, and thus have watched the site evolve since February when I first signed up. Recently, they have implemented some nice workflow navigation at the bottom of each page, which Matt Jones discusses on his blog, BlackBeltJones.
Having spoken to Joi, who’s been advising Last.FM, and their CTO, RJ, I can say that they too are busy developing the site - I’d say it’s certainly one to keep your eye on. But even as it stands, Last.FM is already a slice of fried gold.