Why not social?

I recently had a conversation with an engineer at a very large technology company, pitching me on their project for the mother of all social networks. I didn't have the heart to tell him that what he was proposing sounded like a exercise in futility since they are intending to supplant both the existing enormous networks like Facebook and Google+, but also to build in applications that compete with smaller sites with social components, things like Yelp or TripAdvisor. Yes, he was proposing a single monolithic system, and building it with a few dozen engineers. Instead of arguing I politely smiled and nodded.

Later I was thinking about why the social space is so bland for me and why I was so bored by his pitch. One reason is that I use social networks like Facebook and Google+ very lightly so I cannot imagine myself being really excited about working in that field. It's not relevant for me so it's not something that would make me jump out of bed in the morning. But more importantly, I've already built one.

Since 1997 Aidan ("Corky") has been managing chumps.net, a site where our group of a dozen or two friends could keep in touch, share news, etc. Back in 2001, Corky and I rebuilt chumps.net from scratch, creating a new CMS and other content sharing tools. We revamped profile pages and built a points system (nowadays known as "karma"). There are many aspects to building a social network and we discussed them out at length. What information to expose and how, where people may draw the line on privacy concerns, access controls, people gaming the points system, establishing a "voice" to the site, and so on.

There's a huge gulf between a site for close friends and Facebook, especially from an engineering standpoint. But most of the features are the same. And the user experience issues that we labored over then are the same ones that people argue about in the tech trades now. Intellectually we covered a lot of that ground together a decade ago.

chumps.net is still up, but it's long since been taken private, and Corky has revamped it a number of times, so I doubt that I'd even recognize the code at this point. But it's still there for us to share links, pics, profiles and contact information, shout-outs to each other, and more. Facebook and Google+ have more integration and more streamlined media sharing techniques than we envisioned, but the basic product is pretty much the same.

And that's the problem. I just don't see social networks as the future. I saw it coming in slow motion from miles away so the whole sector feels boring to me. In fact, it wasn't even the future when we were working on it, having been exposed to BBSes 15 years earlier (25 years ago!). A social network is a mature product that is only distinguished from it's predecessors by its scope and reach. Today the giants are Facebook and Google+. Tomorrow it'll be someone else with the same product, just bigger.

But I want to be involved in things that 100 years from now people will say "before they built that, no one could've imagined what life was going to be like afterwards." Social networks feel like the past. I want to build the future.