“Social networking” is one of the buzzwords of today’s Internet. And I really, really hate the term “social networking”.

Saying that web sites these days are “social networking” websites is like saying websites are “security-enabled”. Or we have websites that are “HTTP-enabled”. Expecting websites to have social networking features is something we take for granted. It is something that we should expect from the design of the websites themselves.

The term itself is meaningless. When site owners describe their site as a “social networking” site, they basically meant to say “our website has a user community, and our website allows people to share ideas.”
This rant was inspired by one journal post from a deviantART user who was disillusioned with deviantART:

<blockquote>“I’m really no longer interested in using deviantArt for pimping my work. In the past I’ve made the mistake of taking this site way too seriously. It’s really just a glorified MySpace. It’s not a serious art site.”</blockquote>And here we run into a small conflict with various things that we expect the Web to be these days.

The thing is, deviantART is a “glorified MySpace”. deviantART is, by all modern definitions, a “social networking” website. That is, it is not merely an “art gallery” site where artists post works of art; it’s a site where artists can post works of art to be commented by the members of the user community. Ordinary users and artists like can engage in a dialogue, for better or worse.

The crucial question is this: Is this a bad thing? What makes deviantART a “non-serious” site?

There is a small problem with deviantART is that there’s very little constructive community spirit. It’s full of ordinary people with ordinary qualities and ordinary problems. There are awesome people in there, but awesome people rarely manage to meet the other awesome people. This could be a problem.

But there’s one thing that’s dead certain: it’s not the fault of the “social networking”.

From social point of view, adding “social networking” features to websites is pretty much necessary from the get-go. This is 2011. Art galleries with no user commenting features are a thing of the past. We expect sites that allow posting of user-created content to have user registration, favouriting and sharing functionalities, and commenting on items. If they are not implemented, nothing stops people from commenting on material on these sites on external sites, like blogs. (…Here I am, posting an extended comment on a deviantART journal on my own blog, even though I did post a quick comment on the original item…)

So how do you build a “serious” art site? By fostering a good community. By encouraging your readers and viewers to be constructive. Certainly not by slamming social features altogether. If you want good comments from the readers, you first want to connect with them, and you can’t do that without these accursed “social networking” features.

There’s another problem with deviantART, but that’s not exactly deviantART’s problem at all. The problem is that deviantART is a closed user community. We don’t - yet - have a feasible technological way of communicating user activity with other communities. (Or, at very least, once we have such technological feasibility, we can sort of expect deviantART to charge an arm and leg for that functionality. deviantART charges for Twitter boxes on deviantART user pages. Which is, literally, a free bit of JavaScript offered by Twitter themselves. That’s another problem.)

There’s been very little hype about a slowly cooking protocol called ActivityStreams (and quite a lot more hype about Diaspora), who are trying to tackle this problem. The idea of these projects is simple: social networking should be decentralised, and users should be able to publish their activities to other users no matter what website they are on.

Currently, deviantART is a closed community: you need to have a deviantART account to follow the activities of another deviantART user, and the artist needs to post works to deviantART for the updates to propagate to the deviantART users who watch the artist’s updates. If the artist posts something to, say, YouTube, their deviantART watchers won’t get a notice about that. Sure, deviantART has RSS streams and YouTube has RSS streams, but those don’t exactly have bidirectional functionality: The artist has no idea if someone adds a piece of art to “favourites” if they just follow RSS.

And that’s why deviantART’s “glorified MySpace” features are awesome. They’re a user community that is supported by the technological structure of the site. If you could interface with user communities on other sites, that would be a great thing… but for the time being, you can’t.

The reason why I’m sceptical of MySpace, Facebook, et al., is that they try to fix this thing through centralisation - to cater for their user communities. “Social networking” is good when it’s an ingredient of sites that focus on a purpose. Last.fm is about music, deviantART is about art, YouTube is about videos, PlayFire and Giant Bomb are about video games, Twitter is about status updates and brainfarts; as much as Wikipedia hates to say it, they’re a “social network” too, and their idea is to build an encyclopaedia. All of these have social networking functionality, but at least they’re doing something with it. Their focus is about doing what they’re meant to do. Wikipedia has had, and will have, internal user squabbles, but heck, the users have made us an awesome encyclopaedia. Facebook’s product is about consolidating these social networks into one network - Facebook itself. What people really need are just the sites themselves, and build bridges between them. Facebook doesn’t just want your activity updates, they also want your actual updates themselves: instead of deviantART, Facebook would prefer you to post images to Facebook directly. Dammit, I already post my stuff to deviantART. I’m not budging.

And as things stand, posting material to deviantART certainly isn’t about “pimping” your work on dA. As said, these social networks are isolated. People who put you in their deviantWatch won’t get notices when you post something else to other websites. In the current technological climate, if you want to serve your user community best, you need to post the material to all appropriate channels.

We need some sort of a better protocol, that’s for sure. But social features on websites are here, and they’re here to stay. Making a “social networking” website is common sense - can we please stop using the term to refer to obvious and easy-to-implement things?