Christine Rosen calls out the glaring superficiality of "social networking" in the Wall Street Journal: despite multitudinous 'friends' online, social networking isn't actually making anyone friends. Social networking doesn't replace real friends; in fact, it neither augments real friendships nor builds any additional friendships.
Social networks foster a different form of friendship, one that is public, fluid and promiscuous, yet oddly bureaucratized. Sites such as MySpace or Facebook don't allow users to distinguish among various types of personal relationships: your lover, your best friend, your work colleague and your mother are all "friends" in this world and are all categorized in the same way online. The sites encourage a form of relationship socialism -- abolishing class distinctions for the greater good of acquiring as many "friends" as possible...as if friendship is a form of stamp collecting.
Should we care? Maybe more to the point, is it possible to fix social networking to actually make it useful in the real world?
I think so, but it will require online tools to be much more intelligent. Tim O'Reilly has suggested that this starts with one's address book. Not the fake one kept at MySpace or Facebook, but the real one. The one at the center of our email/calendar/task list that enables and records our daily interactions.
Think about how much more interesting social networking becomes when it actually reflects our real-world social networks. I can have Steve Ballmer in my address book (I do), but my email/phone knows that I've never contacted him. He may be a "friend" on one level (i.e., listed in my address book), but he's a complete stranger on every other, more meaningful level.
Why hasn't someone done this already? It's begging to be solved, with all sorts of money waiting at the other side. If I have a networked address book - reflecting my true network and connected with that network - then all sorts of things become possible, like trusted buying/selling online, as just one (massive) opportunity.
I would license the solution as open source so that people can take their data with them if they want, but I would deliver it SaaS-style (so that no one has to think of an application beyond their email suite/address book). The real magic, however, would be in programming something like this that recognizes the communication methods people already uses and serves as an overlay/plugin to these.
Anyone want to make a billion dollars? Here's your chance.