Social Networks using Web 2.0, Part 2: Social networks as a service (SNaaS)

In this article we will propose a model where a social network will be specialized for a particular line of services, Social Networks as a Service (SNaaS). This model will demonstrate how it can remove the challenges of the current system. It will describe how we can leverage a particular service from multiple social networks. It will also touch upon the technologies which are helping Social Networks leverage the power of the internet, Web 2.0 being one of them. A working model of how social networks can be fitted in the model of a service provider will be proposed. It will conclude with an outline on the future of service providing social networks and the advantages and challenges of such an operational model.

Diptiman Dasgupta, IBM Certified Senior IT Architect, GBS, IBM

Diptiman DasguptaDiptiman Dasgupta is an IBM Certified Senior IT Architect in Global Business Solution Center (GBSC), India. He has about 13 years of experience in design and development, architecting, providing technical strategy, solutions for creating and leveraging assets in client solution as well as providing technical leadership to the organization. He also acts as a Core Member of WW SOA and Web services CoP. He is Co-chair of TEC-India and currently leading many organization level initiatives related to thought leadership and technical vitality improvement of IBM as part of DE Action Network (DEAN).



Rudranil Dasgupta, Advisory IT Architect, Advisory IT Specialist, GBS, IBM

Rudranil DasguptaRudranil Dasgupta is an IBM Advisory IT Architect, Advisory Accredited IT Specialist currently working as Project Lead in a project for the Electronics Industry. He has close to 8 years of experience in design and development, architecting, providing technical strategy, solutions for creating and leveraging assets in client solution as well as providing technical leadership to the organization. He has in depth experience in working with WebSphere solutions, SOA, Web 2.0, Content Management and Java/J2EE. He has a Master of Computer Applications and a Bachelor of Physics Degree.



13 October 2010

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Introduction

The advent of social networks in the past decade has been one of the biggest breakthroughs in the Internet arena. The web has not only become a platform but also has become the virtual living room for the internet users. The ease of usage of these feature rich social networks fuelled by the ever increasing availability of low cost and fast internet has catapulted the increase of usage. In December 2009, there were 248M unique monthly users on the top eight social networks in the US, an increase of 41% from January 2009 according to Mintel, a market research firm. There is no question that the boom of the social networks is the next big thing on the internet.

The popularity of social networks has come with its set of major issues as well. In today's scenario, all social networks have become almost mirror images of each other in terms of features provided as well as the user interfaces that are being provided. There is almost no distinguishing factor among the providers who are concentrating on making their sites feature rich by clubbing almost all functionalities together. This is creating a huge confusion among users who do not know which networking site should be their choice. The end result is duplicate information, privacy loss and redundant information flow among the networks.

A Social Network is usually formed by a group of individuals who have a set of common interests and objectives. There are usually a set of network formulators followed by a broadcast to achieve the network membership. This advertising happens both in public and private groups depending upon the confidentiality of the network. After the minimum numbers are met, the network starts its basic operations and goes out to achieve its goal. Members are lost on the wayside in time, but the best Social Networks that are formed have a healthy influx of members so that at any point the group momentum does not get lost. Success of a Social Network mainly depends on contribution, interest and motivation of its members along with technology backbone or platform support that makes the life easier to communicate and exchange information to fulfill a particular communication need.

The proposal that we will be demonstrating through this article is to have a shift in the overall thinking of the way services are being provided to the user by the social networking applications. There are multiple challenges that the current environment is having: data duplication, low user acceptance and security and privacy issues. The challenges that the current operating methodology of social networks is creating are snowballing into a scenario where we may encounter a bubble burst. All these challenges will be looked in details in the coming sections. We will demonstrate a model of how a social network can become a distinguishing factor by concentrating its focus on a single area, thus preserving the need for the network for a longer time. The various areas that the social networks can focus upon will be covered in the following sections. We will demonstrate a model of operation for the social networks in the coming times which would be single service centric instead of multiple services centric. The advantages that this model will bring will be discussed in details, as well as how it is going to handle the current challenges of the system.


Current structure and functionalities of Social Networks

Internet users spent 65% more time online in April 2010 (884M hours) than they did in April 2007 (536M hours). One in every four and a half UK minutes online is accounted for by social networks and blogs, with the sector having grown to account for almost 23% of UK internet time (176M hours). In mainland China, social networks are taking off at a tremendous speed. As of March 2010 ComScore data, Facebook traffic made up 41% of all traffic on a list of popular social destinations. Social network ad revenue will reach $421M, marking a 50% increases overall according to Informa.

The above statistics just demonstrate how the social network scenario will be impacting the IT industry as a whole. Niche features and state of the art concepts like Web 2.0 have given users a wide range of service architectures and created a huge boom in social networking applications. This can be credited to the basic restructuring of the web as a whole. Earlier the web was a read only platform modified by a select group of webmasters (administrative users on the side of the website) with almost no opinion taken from the end users. The web over the last decade has migrated to a platform in itself and has started a revolution where the end users are 'developing' on the web itself with minimal intervention from the webmasters. Social Networking applications have been able to greatly leverage from this paradigm shift of the web and all that a social networking application offers has been because of this evolution.

The social networking applications of today have all been modeled on some common services to be provided to a user. Such services are broadly divided into the following:

  • The ability to add friends/relatives/colleagues using the same network
  • Post messages either to a contact or a group of contacts and receive messages in return
  • Upload and share files in the genre of music, video or documents
  • Personalized home pages (in the form of wikis) can be created by the users
  • Blogging capabilities
  • Instant messaging capabilities with other users who are online in the same social network
  • Maintain online albums related to portraits
  • Development of links in professional fields by featuring career details
  • Online gaming options between members of the same social network

The above features are some that are very commonly found in the various social networks that we have on the web today. It is also observed that any new social network that is coming up is trying to have most of the features that have been outlined above. The current structure of all social networks that we see is generally identical and comprises of all the features that we have discussed above. Even the interfaces are quite common. For example, what Orkut portrays as its scrapbook, Facebook has demonstrated through the wall.

Social Networks and Web 2.0 Services

In today's environment, computer literacy is at its peak and tools that are aided through the computerization age are most effective in keeping alive a concept as complicated as Social Networks. Web 2.0 has come to the aid of Social networks and through its components has pushed the growth and sustenance of any social network. The major components of Web 2.0 that support Social networks are detailed below. These components contribute in the areas demonstrated in the earlier section. Social networking applications have integrated these components as services within their interface and we have detailed out these components below in order to demonstrate what may become a singular service later on.

  • Communities: Communities are an online space formed by a group of individuals to share their thoughts, ideas and have a variety of tools to promote social networking. There are a number of tools available online nowadays to create communities which are very cost efficient as well as easy to use.
  • Blogging: Blogs give the users of a social network the freedom to express their thoughts in a free form basis and help in generation and discussion of topics.
  • Wikis: A Wiki is a set of co-related pages on a particular subject and allow users to share content. Wikis replace the complex document management systems and are very easy to create and maintain.
  • Folksonomy: Web 2.0 being a people-centric technology has introduced the feature of Folksonomy where users can tag their content online and this enables others to easily find and view other content.
  • File sharing/Podcasting: This is the facility which helps users to send their media files and related content online for other people of the network to see and contribute more on.
  • Mashups: This is the facility via which people on the internet can congregate services from multiple vendors to create a completely new service. An example may be combining the location information from a mobile service provider and the map facility of Google Maps in order to find the exact information of a cell phone device from the internet, just by entering the cell number.

As we see from the above components of Web 2.0, each of them contribute to help the implementation and continued existence of Social Networks on a meaningful basis. While Wikis and Communities help to create an online space for the networks, Blogging, Folksonomy and File Sharing help to information flow across the virtual world of the Social Networking community.

Web 2.0 Information Flow
Web 2.0

Challenges of Current Model

The current genre of social networking applications that we find in the web does not have any particular specialization. For a new user choosing a particular social network becomes very difficult because all of the social networks provide more or less the same range of services. None of the social networks highlight on the concept of specialist or niche services. As these applications do not have any niche services they specialize in or provide any additional value, this sometimes leads to confusion and the same people having profiles in multiple networks. This duplication does not get limited only to the profile creation. There is also a repetition of content in terms of messages and uploaded content in all the social networking sites. The end result is a confused user who spends all his social interaction time doing the same time over and over again.

In the current model, the fact that users have multiple profiles and social networking application associations leads to a tendency of forgetting to remove redundant profiles. These profiles that are not getting updated or removed become a waste commodity. Keeping all the information in multiple places also increases security risks and may lead to loss of privacy of information. It sometimes may also happen that users just stop using some of the social networking sites that they used to visit because they have so much to maintain. This leads to certain sites storing user information (mostly personal) day after day without any activity. This is a great waste of not only some information but also the web space as a whole.

As users on the internet platform, there is a natural tendency to want almost every service in all applications, however, sometimes it does not make sense to have multiple functionalities in the same social networking site. The users in trying to use all functionalities of the site actually get into a tangle and end up using just one or two of so many features. Sometimes this also leads to misuse of a certain feature of the social networking site.

The major challenges that we have shown above comes from the fact that social networks in the present age do not concentrate on a particular service. Every social network tries to provide maximum features to its users. While that is not a deterrent in itself, social networks are slowly losing out on the user population who are finding it very difficult to concentrate on a particular social network for a length of time. This is in turn leading to the decline of many social networking sites and one of the classic examples of such a scenario is the closure of Bebo (AOL).

The increasing competition, which is also coming from the fact that every social network is concentrating on all services, is also removing the most important feature of these networks. The fact that they are being provided free of cost is something that may become something of the past. One of such examples is the social networking site Ning. There may come a time, when due to all social networking sites becoming almost mirror images of each other will cause them to start charging the user to stay in competition.

Proposed Model for the new Social Network

The model that we want to propose through this article is the evolution of Social Networks as a Service (SNaaS). This has been conceptualized in a different manner than the normal social networking servicer that we have. As we have observed there is tremendous competition among the social networks for user count increase and crowding all features in one site is clearly not helping. What we need are social networks focusing on a particular functionality and exposing that as a service. Certain social networks have already started a thought process in this direction, one of the leading examples being LinkedIn, which is concentrating on the aspects of corporate social networking mainly.

The model that we have proposed has been shown in the figure below. There are multiple services that we have been describing in the article so far and these services have been shown in a specialized manner under services. We have Community management as a specialist services for Communities, Event management, Contact management for Profiles as some of the niche services that a single social networking application (shown in the horizontal plane) can provide. The basic thought behind this model is that we will be having a host of services on the internet that can be made available to a user. Such services have been shown under the services vertical in the model. In the service provider section we have the Social Networks, where each social network will be specializing in one of the services shown above. While a social network may choose to provide multiple services, its niche area will be one of the services. As a result the social network application itself becomes a service provider. Another very good example of such services is a profile management service. This service can provide entire management for user profiles that can span across social networking applications. Hence a user availing this service can reduce multiple user profile creation and risks associated with the same.

In the proposed model, the social network would be concentrating upon one of the niche services while keeping the other common features as an additive or supporting cast to the main service. Let us consider the operation of a social networking site that would be dedicated to the career growth of users by building a corporate network. In the present scenario, we have job portals which have facilities of uploading resumes for employees and for employers to see. Example of such a site is Monster.com. We also have sites like LinkedIn which concentrate on the corporate networking. However we do not have a model where the main focus would be career growth, but allow the other features like blogging, instant messaging as a backbone. In the proposed model, the network would be concentrating on building corporate networks through resume and position advertisement as the main service, while using the other services to aid the main theme. This is in stark contrast to the current scenario, where the popular social networks like Facebook, Orkut, and MySpace do not have any distinguishing service that they provide

Figure 2. Social Networks Working Model
Lotus Live

Benefits of the Proposed Model

The proposed model spawns a number of benefits while also removing the challenges of the current model:

  • Duplication of data removed: In the proposed model, every social network would be concentrating on one particular service and providing add-on services to support the main theme. This would focus users to join a network for a specific purpose instead of creating accounts in any random network just for the sake of it. This would remove duplicate profiles of users as well as reduce the upkeep time for a user for each network they belong to. For the case of user profile duplication, we have profile services (described earlier) that can be a niche service to manage profiles for social networking applications.
  • Reduction in failed ventures: The recent bubble bursts for AOL (Bebo) and Ning have sounded a warning message for the other social networks that are prevalent today. The current scenario and competition will cause other networks to cascade in the same direction until and unless there is a distinct value addition that a social network can provide to the user. In our model we have proposed exactly this value addition. Following our model will lead each network to become niche providers in a service area and reduce the chances for reduction in the failed ventures.
  • Increased security and data privacy: In the existing scenario, social networks do not properly allocate resources on security infrastructure. This results in a lot of security incidents. The crux of this problem lies in the fact that social networks offer too many features which are in the long run not utilized and open security loopholes. Following our model will allow social networks to concentrate their security in the niche service area which the network is providing.
  • Higher acceptance among users: Though social networks are very popular among the internet population, we must also accept the fact the average user is becoming much more aware of their exact needs. Providing them with services focused social networks will increase the acceptability of the network and lead to a much more stable user-network relationship.
  • Focused user community: One of the biggest advantages of the model we propose is that it will be a focused user community. When a user enrolls for a social networking site, the user will be very clear as to the exact service that is being provided. This will greatly increase the chances of survival of a social networking site when its focus is aligned in a particular direction.

Conclusion

The model that has been proposed in the scope of this article can become one of the future architectures for social networking applications. Some specialist networking services are coming up like Socialtext and DoctorMd which are concentrating their services on very specific areas. However they still are not following the social networking as a service model by not providing any backup services to support the main service. In the competitive world of social networks, a particular network will be either known by the new services that it provides and by the specialization that it provides. We have seen a number of features that social networking sites already have and it will be very difficult to bring out new services which are really of a value add. The next best option is to streamline the thought process for a social network and concentrate on providing a niche service, which will differentiate it from its competitors and also make it easier for the users of the social network arena.

There are multiple challenges in going towards the model that has been proposed in this article. One of the biggest challenges is the absence of a moderator community for social networks, so we cannot really decide which niche service should be taken up by which community. Another challenge is how the social networks will manage the current plethora of services that they already have. They will have to move from the abundant services provider to a niche service provider and in this context they will face a lot of user resistance in the future. However as a concluding statement, we are observing a focus towards specializing in a particular area in the entire gamut of the IT industry and social networks may be one of the entities which also start the movement in this area.


Acknowledgement

We acknowledge the efforts of Dr. Soumya Sankar Basu, IBM Certified Senior IT Architect in his review efforts and guidance during the writing of the article.

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