I’ve been studying family social networks for about two years and I am highly disappointed. I have a vision for what I want in a family online space but no service even comes close to it, for now.
It all started with a late-night, impromptu brainstorming session I had with a roommate. The issue was that we had barely seen each other in over a month. The three of us shared a house that we hardly spent any time living in. That’s not to say that we were out of the house all the time. Nor does that mean that we didn’t like each other. We were, and are, good friends and we share a lot in common. No. We spent our time online in our own separate worlds (in our bedrooms).
That night we talked and dreamed about online solutions for issues facing households like ours. We imagined other roommates and even entire families caught up online. We saw, first-hand, how smartphones, social networking and other online spaces tore our attention away from the people we live with. We were connected online and we talked more there than in person.
We realized that places like Facebook keep your relationships at arm’s length. I said it then and I’ve said it a lot since then: Facebook strengthens your weak social ties and weakens your strong ties. In other words, Facebook allows you to connect with your acquaintances but at the cost of your most important relationships, those people you live with and your closest friends. Now, I should be clear, I don’t think Facebook is trying to destroy the household (families, roommates, etc). Rather, Facebook has one relationship paradigm and that is “friend”. The issue arises when we try to bring acquaintances and family into that space. Facebook is designed for friends. So, when we push other types of relationships through it, we end up elevating those relationships that don’t deserve that status and we bring down those relationships that are more than friends.
The Facebook relationship paradigm is friend. Twitter’s relationship paradigm is stranger/fan. LinkedIn’s paradigm is business. What my roommate and I discovered is that the world needs a social network that honors the home. That social network would have a relationship paradigm of family.
Over the last two years not much has changed in the family-network space. The popular family networks are still working from the paradigm of friend and they all advertise features instead of benefits. They haven’t taken a step back to rethink how our closest relationships should be represented online. They need a paradigm shift.
Many of these family-networks are worth using and would help to organize a household. However, they fall short because they don’t think differently. Besides offering some key features to attract and keep attention, they could do a better job of getting their message across to potential users. Instead, they advertise features which have been common since Facebook. I’m talking about photos, videos, calendars and status updates. Apparently, they fail to realize two basic marketing tenets. First, when everyone on the playing field is providing the same feature, that feature is no longer a feature but a basic requirement for doing business. Second, focus your marketing on benefits, not features. Otherwise, competition can simply copy your features and then you have nothing unique to offer. What they lack in advertising is a reflection of what they lack in vision. Their paradigm is wrong and that’s why their service is not appealing to me (and, I would argue, many others who would be interested in a social site for households).
You have a unique relationship with your home. Most often, it’s a place of rest and security but also a deeply personal space that is specific to you (your bedroom). The family space online should be no different. Our online home should be a place where our household, and only members of our household, can live and organize their digital lives free from the prying eyes and noise of the inter-webs. Yes, we should have a shared calendar and be able to share photos, videos, files (of any type) and other things. The household “feed” would be a place we could share what’s for dinner, that dad will be late getting home from work and other info that is specific to you and your household. In this way, we respect what goes on in the home and offer a correlation of our offline home space to our online space. The features I listed above are not unique and, by themselves, will not draw people to and keep people on a social service like this. Those are the features required to play in this industry. The real power comes in combining a household social network with a personal space for each member.
The bedroom is our most private space. Many people use it as a refuge from the world, a place to gather their thoughts and prepare to face the masses. Others use the bedroom as a staging ground for their outward adventures. When I go online there are 4 or 5 tabs that I launch right away. I’m checking the same basic sites (3 of them social) each time I log on. What I long for is one place where I can go to receive information from my favorite places on the internet. I want that space to have a list or mosaic of my top 20 sites, to connect with my favorite social sites, I want it to have a calendar that syncs with other services and devices, I want it to be a platform that I can customize and install apps or widgets as I desire. Basically, I want this to be my bedroom on the internet. This is my personal dashboard and portal to the rest of the online world. It would be my primary residence online. What better way to engage this paradigm than in the context of a household? Why wouldn’t such a portal / dashboard / online bedroom be connected to a household of people whom I share a family or family-like relationship with?
When we combine a household approach to social networks with a bedroom-like portal/dashboard for individuals we tap into a strong, existing, human structure. By offering both services in a cohesive package we encourage online behavior to mimic that of the physical world and I think doing so is a powerful way to utilize human nature.
I mentioned features, above. The following are benefits:
- Offers a sense of structure to a world that is increasingly more complex
- Provides a trusted and secure space for young interweblings
- Creates a sense of family and family-time on the internet…with your family (novel concept)
- Provides a creative outlet using structured customization of personal space (and public-facing spaces)
- Comes full-circle from individuals on the internet to families on the internet, together.
- Opens up pathways of communication between all members of a household in such a way that will encourage inter-family conversations (that more closely mimics physical methods where members sit at the dining-room table and have a conversation).
This is my vision for family social networks. It’s not a place to share photos and update a private status, it’s a destination where I hang my online hat.