Ambient Social Networking

I’ve been messing around with email/communications ideas for a little while now, and one of the threads I’ve been tugging on lately is the concept of “ambient” social interactions, exchanges that take place in the context of other online activities (as opposed to in the inbox / IM window). There are lots of interesting ideas floating around in this space, including:

  • Me.dium – a “social browsing” browser extension that lets you see what sites your friends are browsing and interact with them in real time as they browse the Web. They’ve recently leveraged their user browse history to expand into “social search”, another theme I’ve been following since my Judy’s Book days. (Kiobo is a new entrant in social browsing with a similar value prop).
  • Stickis – a “social notes” plug-in that lets you and your friends post and read virtual Post-It notes on any public webpage. One smart feature here is integration with member blogs, so blog posts that link to other sites also appear as Stickis on those pages.
  • Popular Media’s SocialNotes – a server-side include that allows publishers to offer a “share this” feature that visitors can use to send links and initiate chats with friends about the content on the publisher’s site. A primary use-case for this is the common real-world behavior of “social shopping”, inviting friends in to the evaluation / decision-making process about what to buy.

Of these, SocialNotes offers the best fit with my understanding of consumer Web user behavior and preferences. Despite careful engineering of privacy controls, the social browsing / social search offerings I’m aware of are simply too invasive to appeal to the mainstream Web user, and the Stickis idea offers too little in the way of real-time social interaction. But the server-side code requirement is a big hurdle to significant penetration of the SocialNotes idea, and I’m not convinced that the right mousetrap for this need has been invented yet.

I’m sure there are other good ideas in this category I’m not yet aware of, but I think a gap still exists in the market for a communications product that:

  • enables real-time, in-context social interactions around diverse types of Web-based media (e.g, news articles, product pages, real-estate listings, photos, videos)
  • leverages existing email / IM contact and buddy lists
  • supports multi-party (i.e., group) discussion as well as person-to-person
  • is private by default (so only the parties participating in the discussion have access to it)
  • is persistent (so I can refer back to my past discussions, including the media discussed)

I don’t know if this is a companion product to email or ultimately replaces it, but a huge slice of online social interactions are anchored around chunks of third-party Web content, and the tools and methods for supporting these interactions don’t come close to satisfying the human appetite for shared experience.