Quite a while back eli and I were talking about myspace some how. I was surely ranting about how much I hate it; all shitty markup, bad error messages, tons of downtime, not to mention to way people use myspace. Its just shit. Across the board complete and utter shit. The only thing, the only thing, myspace has done right is gaining critical mass or the network effect.
We talked about it from lots of angles (social, technical, aesthetic), then he asked me a really good question. What will good social networks look like when they come around? I told him, they already are around. Look at upcoming.org, flickr, del.icio.us. (yes, I know that all three of these are owned by yahoo now. yes, its just a coincidence. yes, we had this talk ages ago before they bought them. though, it does say something about yahoo's barometer for what's good and important these days.)
All three of them (amoungst others out there on the InterWebs) facilitate social activity based around an activity or an object. Upcoming's activity is scheduling and coordinating events happening in the real world (meetups, parties, etc). You could also say that Upcoming's object is a calendar or event listing. Flickr's activity is sharing photos, their object is photos, obviously. Del.icio.us's activity is storing and sharing bookmarks. Their objects is URLs.
Its interesting to note that at least flickr and del.icio.us are both useful without any of the social aspects. They're an order of magnitude more useful with the social stuff, but if you just wanted to store you bookmarks in a place that wasn't your computer, del.icio.us is still good for that.
Real life relationships are based around the same idea, an object or an activity. You don't find many groups of people getting together or seeking out other people just to 'be friends'. Almost all of everyone's friends were met doing something. Relationships are mitigated by activity. Profile commenting 'hey, wassup?' is not activity. At least, I don't think it is.
So what does all this mean? I'll make a bold and wild prediction here. Even though we see a surge of new social networks right now, I think we'll notice a trend away from generic social networks where all you have is friends and a trend towards a multiple specialized network arrangement. You have a network of networks that you belong to. You'll be a flickr member and have certain flickr relationships based on your flickr activity (photo sharing), some music network for music sharing with music friends, work networks for job stuff, local networks for physical meetups with local friends, and so on.
There will also be a trend toward more kinds of relationships than just friend or not. My lawyer and my hooker are not the same kind of relationship, they both fuck me, but in very very different ways*. I need to be able to separate that online like I do in the real world.
Throw into the mix a more portable ID system with free data import/export and you've got yourself the makings of social network worth a damn.
*Let me be clear. I do not have a lawyer or a hooker. Its just a figure of speech, an expression that, I think, illustrates my point well.