Although social networking sites have become the commonplace over the past eight years since the introduction of Friendster in 2002, designers have not yet explored two important notions: 1) What kind of social experience do social networking sites foster?; and 2) Do social networking sites encourage community?
This past year social media, and social network sites in particular, have reached new heights of popularity and adoption. It is no longer unusual for clients to request that designers “add Facebook” to their respective sites, mainly for the purpose of increased engagement and community building for their brand as a part of a greater social marketing strategy. Although social networking sites have become commonplace, designers have not yet explored two important notions:
- What kind of social experience do social networking sites foster?; and
- Do social networking sites encourage community?
The Anatomy of a Social Network Site
Although many of us utilize social networking sites on a daily basis, it is important to step back and understand the various components that make up a social networking sites, as well recognize that social networking sites are fundamentally different from other social software. Social network sites differentiate themselves from blogs, wikis, and social tagging sites, by three distinct features: profiles, friend lists, and comments. According to Rosen, unlike the “proto-social networking sites of a decade ago [that] used metaphors of place to organize their members: people were linked through virtual cities, communities, and homepages,” today’s social networking sites “organize around metaphors of the person, with individual profiles that list hobbies and interests.”
The fundamental feature of a social network site is the profile. A profile is constructed through a pre-defined web form that each member completes for the purpose of describing themselves to other members of the site. The most basic profile fields include demographic details such as age, sex, and location, followed by relationship status, educational level, political and religious affiliations, as well as tastes in music, movies, and books, a photograph, and open-ended descriptions. These fields exist because Friendster – originally designed as a dating site – was the first popular social network site and was subsequently emulated by newer social networking sites.
Once the profile is created, members are than encouraged to look at others’ profiles and add those people to their Friends list. The creation of a friends lists is what makes up the “social network” component of the sites.
Social networking sites also provide a means for communication among Friends. This is most commonly done through comments posted on “The Wall” in Facebook or the “Friend’s Comments” section in MySpace. The comments are publicly displayed and viewable to anyone with access to the individuals’ profiles. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, “the most popular way of communicating via social networking sites is to post a message to a friend’s profile, page, or ‘wall’.” 
The Social Experience of Social networking sites
According to Jenny Preece, “an online community is first and foremost a social experience that changes according to who is present, the number of people involved, and the type of discussion that occurs.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, social networking sites tend to foster an narcissistic experience, where users goals become to collect friends, feedback, and attention. There is very little sense of being part of a larger group, and little motivation for establishing connections with strangers. By following the daily activities of “Friends”, people do begin to feel, what Leisa Reichelt  coined as “ambient intimacy”, which is a sense of a stronger connection to weak ties, such as long lost school friends, dispersed colleagues, or relatives. However, the binary friend/not friend designation found on social networking sites often collapses all relational contexts, turning the semi-public space into a broadcast medium, where others can voyeuristically observe interpersonal interactions.
Some of these experiences are dependent on the design of the friendship mechanism in social networking sites. Sites like Facebook which require reciprocal approval from both parties to become connected, encourage users to limit connections to people who they already know, and don’t particularly dislike. In essence, Facebook truly is just for friends. Sites like Twitter, where a reciprocal connection is not required, people are much more likely to follow strangers that may be of interest. However, there is a proliferation of spammers and bots which often clutter the stream and diminish the experience.
For all social networking sites, the temporal aspect combined with an ever growing connection list creates a significant strain on attention. People often find it difficult to follow individuals of interest because they get lost in the stream, especially if there is a particularly active individual. The situation gets even more complicated as people join more than one social networking sites. In this instance, individuals often pick a primary social networking sites, which they will check and interact with frequently, while others will be visited occasionally.
Social Networking Sites and Community
Over the years, as technology has progressed, so have community designs. Moving from text-based MUDs (multi-user dungeons) and MOOs (multiuser object oriented technology), to threaded discussions such as usenet groups, listserves. and bulletin boards, and most recently social network sites. According to Preece, online communities are made up of three parts: a purpose which is supported by technology and guided by policies. The purpose of social networking sites is generally thought of as creating connections, or building up the social network through friends list. This purpose is fairly generic compared to community sites of a decade ago, which ranged from interest groups to education, business, and health support.
The community sites of a decade ago were explicitly situated within the context of the domain under discussion, while individuals and their relationships with each other were invisible. In social networking sites, the individual and their relationships are explicit, while the community becomes invisible or imagined. The interaction is centered on individual actions and reactions, with little sense of a larger group. Currently, social networking sites are designed to increase the strength of ties between individuals, instead of fostering a sense of community.
As we look into the future, we should not forget the lessons we learned in the past. Community designs such as threaded discussions, provide for rich content, a sense of being part of a group, feelings of support and belonging, as well a common interest upon which new relationships can form. Perhaps social networking sites, although incredibly popular, are not always the answer to increased engagement and community in every context. Designers should think about ways of combining the rich context of threaded discussions along with aspects of social networking sites. Is there a way that we could surface content, but at the same time provide pointers to individual contributors? Google Reader is currently taking first steps to this approach with their “Like” functionality, which allows all Google Readers users to mark a post they like, and also view others who liked the same post.
I challenge designers to stop emulating designs that have not changed since 2002, and take the concept further through the creation of context appropriate designs which balance the larger community and the individual. The next time you are designing social network features, think carefully about what kind of behavior and social experience you wish to encourage. Do you want people to connect with their existing contacts, such as found on TripIt? Or do you want them to discover resources from strangers, such as found on Delicious? Additionally, think carefully about the value proposition of your social networking sites. Why will people choose to use the features on your site versus the several other sites they are currently using? What personal benefit does your site provide aside from social networking sites?
 Boyd, d. and Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11.
 Rosen, C. (2007). Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism. The New Atlantis, 15.
 Lenhart, A., and Madden, M. (2007). Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview. Pew Interent & American Life Project, January 7.
 Preece, J. (2004). Designing and evaluating online communities: research speaks to emerging practice. Int. J. Web Based Communities, 1(1).
 Reichelt, L. (2007). Ambient Intimacy. Available at: http://www.disambiguity.com/ambient-intimacy/