Social network software rising

By | February 9, 2008

We’ve been consulting for several clients about social networks and keeping a close eye on the developments of various social network software and the niche sites that are springing up and using them. There have been some new developments in both areas, here’s a few we’d like to highlight.

Automattic (wordpress parent company, creators of BBpress and Akismet spam eliminator) has recently gotten 29 million dollars in funding. Automattic has decided to hold off on being bought out entirely and is looking to furtherit’s anti-spam, identity, wikis, forums, and more – small, open source pieces, loosely joined with the same approach and philosophy that has brought them this far. Today I stumbled upon a new theme for wordpress that makes it easy to use wordpress as a twitter like, many to many messaging system for groups, private or public. Can’t wait to see how people hack it up and what kind of cms social network mashups will be created using this functionality.

In other recent finds, we stumbled upon a list of 350 social networks listed at Mashable. We also found a social networking watch site with info about new social networking sites. We found several linked to articles at mahalo about a new adult social network type of site called zivity.

We also found a USA today article describing how it is very difficult to verify ages for those who sign up for social networks. an excerpt:

MySpace has recently implemented policies designed to better separate kids from adults. Among the changes, adult MySpace users must already know a 14- or 15-year-old user’s e-mail address or full name to initiate contact or view a profile containing personal information.

However, because age is self-reported, as it is at similar sites, adults could simply sign up as minors.

There are tools to verify age, but they work best for porn, wine-sales and other sites meant for adults only.

A credit card, for instance, could demonstrate that a user is of age, notwithstanding a teen’s ability to “borrow” a card from Dad’s wallet.

More robust techniques like those from IDology Inc. and Sentinel Tech Holding Corp.’s Sentry check addresses, birth dates and other information users provide against public databases, such as voting and property records.

But many social-networking sites cater to both adults and teens – and teens can be difficult to verify.

Minors “do not possess as many unique identifiers as adults do,” said Adam Thierer, a senior fellow with the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a technology think tank that shuns government regulation. “They are not voters yet. They don’t have home mortgages or car loans. Most don’t have drivers licenses until they are 16.”

Many states restrict the disclosure of drivers license data on minors, and school administrators guard their registration records fiercely.

“Do parents really want … that kind of information available on their children?” Collier asked.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said raising the minimum age to 16 from 14 would help because many teens have drivers licenses by then. He has called for federal incentives for sites like MySpace to perform age verification.

Attorneys General Jim Petro of Ohio and Greg Abbott of Texas, meanwhile, support verification via credit card, while Massachusetts’ Tom Reilly has called for unspecified “age and identity verification.”

“Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” Blumenthal said. “It’s a question of whether the company in good faith really wants to know those ages and sacrifice some of the excitement and coolness that comes with anonymity.”

Getting a reliable system developed could require expenditures and perhaps result in a smaller base of users, he said, “but if we can invent the Internet, … surely there are means to verify the ages of those individuals, or such means can be developed.”

Facebook takes a stab at verification by restricting access only to those with a valid e-mail address from a high school, college or participating company. It is happy to have 8 million registered users, less than 10% of MySpace’s.

Industrious Kid Inc.’s imbee, for kids 8 to 14, requires parents to submit credit cards to vouch for their children.

Of course, an adult may “vouch” for an alter ego and use that to chat with kids. Thus, all imbee profiles are initially private, and adults can’t do much without tricking a parent into letting them join a child’s network, said Tim Donovan, imbee’s vice president of marketing.

Zoey’s Room, a site for girls 10-14, has verified each of its 300 members with a school or youth group. It charges $15 a year.

“It does cost to create safe communities,” said Erin Reilly, co-founder of the organization that runs Zoey’s Room. “I would rather have a manageable population and keep them all safe … instead of looking for a million unique visitors.”

IDology believes its technology could help keep children safe. A verified adult could be given greater access and the ability to share profiles openly. Anyone not willing or able to be verified, including teens, would be left with limited access and private profiles.

But any technical solution tough enough to work would penalize legitimate users who cannot be verified, said John Cardillo, Sentry’s chief executive. Even 18- and 19-year-olds aren’t fully in public databases yet, he said.

MySpace, instead, has been trying to catch minors after the fact.

It has technology to scan for inconsistencies and teams of employees to investigate further. For example, a user who claims to be 18 might mention a sixth-grade class elsewhere in the profile, or feature a photo of a birthday cake with only 13 candles.

Safety experts warn that creating too many barriers could drive kids to another social-networking site with fewer controls, or perhaps free-for-all chat rooms.

And ineffective solutions, they say, could give parents and children a false sense of security, increasing the dangers.

Ron Teixeira, executive director for the National Cyber Security Alliance, said parents should teach children an online equivalent of “Don’t take candy from strangers.” That way, he said, kids will know what to do should social networking be replaced by the next big fad.

 It seems that social networks are increasingly in demand for communicating today, and there will continue to be new ways for users to share information. We had even seen a short video somewhere that talked about ways to use linkedin as a business networking social app. Certainly there will be much learning for everyone on the best ways to use these powerful communication tools, and there will undoubtedly be more technology coming to help keep everyone happier, more productive and in touch.

It is our hope that the openid standard will continue to flourish, and that it will be easier for people to take a certain amount of profile information from one network to another, so we don’t have to keep typing in tons of information for every social circle we want to participate in. Of course safe guarding data, privacy, ease of use, and data portability should be at the fore front of these emerging technologies.

We are getting there. There are many great ways for people to communicate and share today, there are certainly going to be some growing pains, but the numbers show that there is great need for millions of people to do more online together, and the companies that do it right stand to make millions happy.

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