Social Networks or Data Repositories?

Last.FM, Flickr and Delicious. Three of my favourite sites that I use weekly if not daily. Use being an interesting word. I have scrobbled over 17,000 tracks into Last.FM, I have bookmarked over 5,000 URLs in Delicious and I have uploaded around 8,500 photos into Flickr. My usage of these actual sites though seems to be dumping and storing data. These once shining beacons of web 2.0 have been tarnished a little recently as they are surpassed by newcomers and/or left to stagnate by their corporate overlords. Maybe the reason for their lack of buzz/so called demise is that they are no longer really social networks but are becoming data repositories.  Maybe that is just the way I use them but I have a feeling I am not alone. Also is that a bad thing?

Each of these sites have social features built in to varying degrees;

Last.FM – Friends – people you follow, Groups – communities of users with similar tastes this then powers a radio station of those choices, Neighbours – People with similar musical tastes to you, Liked tracks allow you to share your love of a single track both inside and outside of Last.FM (strangely you can’t like an album but can share the album with social networks). With music what you really want is recommendations for new music and Last.FM does a pretty good job of this with its radio and recommended bands features.

Delicious – Allows me to see what the hottest bookmarks are right now, See which users saved the link, from a social point of view I can build up a network of users and then view what they are reading, I can also make bundles from that network (like Google+ Circles). I can notify my network about specific links but apart from that not much else from either a social or a discovery point of view.

Flickr – The Explore section has a rich source of content based on what Flickr decides is interesting to photos from specific places in the world. You can also create a network of contacts and see what they have been uploading at the Your Contacts page. There are also groups that can be created that typically bring together similar types of photos/photography.

Now I will admit that I hardly use any of the basic social features listed above.  I have had a little play but they fail to grab me. I have a small network of contacts on all three services but I rarely look what they have been listening to, photographing or reading. Not because of a lack of interest but due to the fact it is so hidden away.  I think there needs to be a specific call to action or event to visit these places. These networks don’t provide those either. They are just dumping grounds for data.

Timoni West, A designer at Flickr, wrote a wonderful post on how the most important page, the uploads from your contacts, on Flickr is failing. It lists some of the major problems with the page e.g. Inability to see all a contacts recent uploads, you have to visit a users photostream to see if you have seen all their recent photos.  There is a wonderful line in the post that I think sums up the missing social elements from all the services I have mentioned above:

‘The page fails on a fundamental level—it’s supposed to be where you find out what’s happened on Flickr while you were away.’

When you return to a network/service you want to know what you have missed. You want to see what your friends have been doing while you were away. ‘What your friends are doing while your away’ can easily be curated and aggregated and displayed or shared on a network that you visit more frequently.

Another element that I think is missing from all three of these services are social objects. No great sharing elements exist from these sites to link activity to other more social spaces such as Twitter/Facebook/Google+. You can manually share a single or set of photos, like a track and share it wider or share a link from Delicious. The problem being that these things are again manual and the sharing of these things have been improved on by other services. Link sharing is obviously an integral part of Facebook and Twitter and as such sharing directly from source will win over sharing via Delicious as it adds a needless step. Sharing photos from Flickr is fine but other services are surpassing it. Facebook is the biggest photo repository in the world simply because you can tag your friends. They are all on Facebook they are not on Flickr. This is then shared into the users news feed. The fact you can’t tag Facebook friends on Flickr is a failing of the federated social web rather than Flickr but a problem for Flickr none the less. The most used camera on Flickr is the iPhone. The most used app on the iPhone is Facebook. You also have so many photo sharing services designed for mobile and designed to link straight back to Twitter e.g.  TwitPic, yFrog and Instagram being just a few examples.  All these things mentioned above are single entities, a photo, a link or a track.

Can these repositories offer something unique worth sharing? A call to action tailored to that user? The thing that data repositories can easily generate are stats. Everyone loves stats. Especially if they are in pretty graphs or in small digestible formats.  I think Last.FM are really missing a trick with stats. I use a service called tweekly.FM. This simple service looks at what I have listened to on Last.FM then tweets once a week my top 3 artists. It has lead to quite a few conversations about music. Many more than I have had because of Last.FM. How easily could Last.FM implement this service? Very. Could they offer much more detailed weekly/monthly/yearly stats pages? Yes. Look at their blog for some of the great things they can do with data? They just need to make that more personal and shareable. Another favourite Last.FM related service is LastGraph. This service creates a visualisation based on your listening history. Here is what I have listened to in the last 6 months.


Last.FM have some wonderful data as they cover on their blog but again it is hidden away ( Finally to get people visiting a music site how about giving people the option to DJ. Turntable.FM have done just that. A bit more interactive than the radio channels i.e. the person is on the site now spinning their favourite songs. Go and listen.

What about the photos? Well the current hot photo site is Instagram. An iPhone only social network built around sharing photos. They have 4 employees and 6 million users. The close integration with the service and Twitter has certainly helped it grow.  It has made photos social objects and I must admit I find myself visiting multiple times a day unlike Flickr where I only go when I have something to upload.  instagram recently launched an API and now we are seeing lots of interesting things being built on top. Just like Flickr when they launched their API. One great use of the Instagram API is Statigram. A beautiful set of stats/graphs about your Instagram usage. Shows data on your photos but also who you interact with the most. Instagram would do well to implment these kinds of features into their web app if it ever appears.  Flickr would do well to emulate this to beef up their own stats pages and make them more useful and shareable.


These sites have all this interesting data about a person. Show them what you make of that data. Allow them to share what you have shown them about themselves.  Why not go one step further and allow them to create something physical based on all this data like the lovely Xmas Decorations that RIG made a couple of years ago.

I think these three sites have to accept the fact they are data repositories for most people. They have hardcore users who are highly active in groups. What they need is to convert more of the packrats into more engaged users. Allow the engaged (and the packrats) to link outwards to the areas of the web designed for social e.g. Twitter, Google+, Facebook. Bring people in and design rabbit holes to allow people to truly explore and decide how far they want to go.

I am not sure if being a data repository is necessarily a bad thing, there are plenty of business models around that. Some sites should just realise what they are and make the most of that fact.

Not really sure where this post came from it was just bumbling around in my head. It took me a while to finish and it made me think that my superficial use of these sites is not really the fault of the site but more my laziness. I want to get more out of these sites but they seem to make it difficult or is it the classic case of you get out what you put in (as long as you put in more than just data). The other thought that bumbled around was how does this apply to online banking. They are certainly data repositories and they certainly don’t design for sharing, discovery or making new connections. Along with Flickr, Last.FM and Delicious should they be doing more or are they fine as they are?