Social Networks, Fads, Nostalgia

Social networks come and go. Just as Google+ has recently made its appearance as the newest entrée into the social networking game, a lot of older social networks have faded into memory. For some, however, these older networks were the diaries they kept during formative times in their lives. Now that the networks are gone, so are their diaries. Worse, these were more than diaries. They were also scrapbooks, piles of old videos, and letters saved in shoeboxes.

Some of the research I did for this column was to simply Google the social networks I once frequented. I was curious to see if they still existed or how they evolved. Sadly, social networking was not an idea when I was in college. I missed that era by a few years, and am now plagued by the line in “Avenue Q” sung by a recently graduated puppet, “I wish I had taken more pictures.” I went to college before digital cameras and before the modern web really existed. I had a scrapbook in college, and actively took photos (and had them developed) my freshman year. But then the scrapbook is empty as I got busier with my college life.

A few years out of college, however, the early social networks started to crop up. Like a song or scent that evokes a specific memory in your life, social networks are like that for me. I remember working at Barnes& when started. Most of my work friends were on that. Around the same time, a company called MySquare (later changed to TheSquare) was trying to build an alumni network for Ivy League schools and Little Three (the “little Ivys” that aren’t really Ivys). I was active on that, as it extended my time at Amherst College (or at least my nostalgia for college) just a little bit longer. I went to TheSquare while I was writing this column and was excited to see they still had my account information. But they have emptied out their database, and none of my old connections or correspondences still exist.

Just after graduating school, a few current undergrads at Amherst called me to pick my brain about personalization for a new site they were creating called The Daily Jolt. I was not involved in that site other than an initial phone call or two, but that site lasted about 10 years, and I remember being very impressed with the guys who wrote it (and secretly wishing I could still be in college so I could be a part of it). The site was a home page for student life at colleges across the country. It included today’s meals at the cafeteria, student events, forums and photo sharing, etc. Sadly, the Jolt closed its doors last year. If you Google it, you will see the messages left on its “RIP” page. They are full of people whose college experiences were defined by that site, and they are wondering if there is anyway to see it again, get their photos, etc. Moreover, graduates often went to that site just to see what was going on in their alma mater, as a way to keep their memories alive and feel connected to their past. It’s these people who were especially sad that The Daily Jolt closed its doors.

Then there are the more mainstream sites like Friendster and MySpace. These sites also define periods in our lives. I remember, before finally cancelling my Friendster account, taking one last look around and re-reading old messages. Who were my friends back then? What did we talk about? Who was I back then? It was like walking through your childhood house that your parents sold when you were 10.

I Googled “Archiving Social Networks” and there were some results, but none seemed to do what I was hoping to find.

Back in the analog days, keeping memories around was as simple as never cleaning your basement. My parents have every birthday and special event recorded on VHS tapes in their house. They have boxes of photos and negatives. I even have “love letters” I got in grade school from girls who wanted me to check box number one if I liked them as a friend or box number two if I liked them more than that (and they are still folded in their origami boxes in a way that only grade school girls knew how to do).

I, on the other hand, have directories on hard drives with photos. I also have memories that existed on old social networks that don’t exist anymore. What is our generation to do about this? Have I missed a section of our industry that solves this problem?

For every new social network that gets created, many more drop by the wayside. In this transition lays an entire untapped (I think) industry: one aimed at preserving our memories as technology changes.

Everyone is so focused on the “cloud” these days. But in reality, all these social networks were “the cloud” before the term existed, and more and more we need to deal with what happens when the cloud goes away and we have no way to get it back. I personally think that any next generation social networking site needs to have an offline digital component (such as desktop applications with locally stored copies of everything) and an offline analog component (so I can easily make photo albums, DVDs, and archive letters). Only then can the passing of a social network not take with it years of memories.

For those looking for ways to innovate in a super-saturated market like social networks, you have your marching orders. Social networks are our conduits for connecting to people, but they can’t be the only evidence we have of those connections.

Thoughts, comments? Leave them below.

Until next time. . .

Jack is off today. This column was originally published on July 22, 2011 on ClickZ.

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