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Social networking heads toward smaller communities

Researchers predict online 'villages', not 'cities'

The next step in social networking will see a focus on smaller online communities rather than large groups, according to academic researchers.

"One thing that's very broken in the social tools we have right now is context and boundaries and a sense of who I want to share what with," said Liz Lawley, director of the laboratory for social computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Many social-networking sites in essence force users to become part of a huge community, or they force users to choose whether someone else is a friend or not, with no other subtleties defining that relationship, she explained.

"People want to create villages and they're being forced into cities. That's creating a huge tension in social interactions," she said. Lawley and other academic researchers spoke at the Microsoft Research annual Faculty Summit - an event that brings together academics, US government workers and Microsoft researchers to discuss new fields of computer-science research.

Ideally, Lawley and the researchers she shared the stage with would like to be able to define various sets of friends online.

"The people I fly with as a pilot could care less about my amateur radio work. They should have the ability to say they'll be my friend in this context and not necessarily in another context," said R & H Security Consulting president and CEO Howard Schmidt, a former academic who also consults for the US government.

"This is something we have to fine-tune as we build out social networking."

Academic researchers could help contribute to developments allowing such fine-tuning, but first they'll have to start using the existing tools, Lawley said. "Many of my colleagues could bring interesting insight, but I look at their use of these tools and they have no idea that there's a way you can share bookmarks with other people, no idea that you can moderate comments on a blog."

NEXT PAGE: Why adults and teens shouldn't be segregated online


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