Between my day job at Wired, this blog, my startup BookTour and my hobby DIYDrones, I've been thinking a lot about how to integrate social networking into websites better. Right now the world is focused on stand-alone social networking sites, especially Facebook and MySpace, and the fad of the moment is to take brands and services there, as companies build Facebook apps and MySpace pages in a bid to follow the audience wherever they happen to be. But at the same time there's a growing sense that elements of social networking is something all good sites should have, not just dedicated social networks. And that suggests a very different strategy--social networking as a feature, not a destination.
At the moment, my sites range from virtually no social networking (BookTour and this site) to heavy social networking (DIYDrones, which is built from the ground up on the Ning platform). Wired is on the minimal social networking side, with only our Reddit news submission and voting service doing much of it at all.
(BTW, by "social networking" I'm not including basic "chat amongst yourself" stuff like comments, wikis and voting. Instead, social networking to me means the tracking of individual preferences and behavior and giving users the ability to draw upon implicit or explicit connections between them and other users to do something useful).
In the case of Wired, social networking is clearly a feature that we should have more of. But we shouldn't move the brand onto a MySpace page or a Facebook app simply to gain access to the tools that could connect our readers to each other (which is not to say that we couldn't image a Wired Facebook app of some sort; we just haven't released one yet). Instead, it's mostly something we should build or buy and integrate into wired.com wherever it makes sense.
In the case of DIYDrones (image above), we fortunately chose a technology platform that has rich social networking built in (indeed, that's why we chose the platform). Ning represents the "Long Tail of social networks"--more than 100,000 hyperfocused microsites, each with their own community. In this case, Ning is not a destination itself--instead, it provides hosted social networking tools for niche sites to create their own destinations.
In the case of this blog, which is built on Typepad, the hope is that Typepad will introduce more and better social networking tools that I can deploy to help readers talk amongst themselves and otherwise make useful connections. SixApart has some such features on its Vox service, but has been slow to bring them to TypePad. Hope springs eternal, but if things don't seem headed in the right direction I can always move this blog to another platform, either wired.com if we can build out the technology fast enough or Ning if the blogging tools there improve (which I'm told they will, very soon).
Finally, there's the tricky question of BookTour. Right now we're primarily a destination site, but there are a lot of other book sites out there, including at least three "MySpace for books" in the form of LibraryThing, GoodReads and Shelfari, and we're unlikely to get as big as any of them given our singular focus on events. So we've been debating internally whether we want to shift to a distributed functionality strategy (AKA "go where the people are"), where most users interact with us via a widget on third party sites, clicking through to our site only when they want to go deeper. We're embarking on some experiments with a few partners we like to see how that goes. Hopefully a distributed strategy will help us reach critical mass as a destination, too, but right now we're simply experimenting to see what works.
All this brings me back to the title of this post. As I think about the current Facebook craze and the notion of it as an all-encompassing platform, sucking in functionality from other sites across the board, I find myself skeptical. With my Long Tail hat on, I think that one-size-fits-all will fail in social networking, just as it has everywhere else (which is why I like Ning, which suppresses its own brand for the sake of those of the microsites it hosts. See this post for more on that.).
Instead, I think focused sites that serve niche communities will extract the best lessons from Facebook and MySpace and offer better social networking tools to the communities they already have. I'm sure huge and generic social networking destinations will continue to do well, but I'm placing my bet on the biggest impact coming when social networking becomes a standard feature on all good sites, bringing community to the granular level where it always works best.