Corrected to add 2 paragraphs previously omitted.
To answer the question "What is the future of social networks?" we first have to answer the question "What is a social network?" Brad Stone of The New York Times raises some very interesting points on both accounts in his article "Social Networking's Next Phase."
In reality, the Internet itself is THE social network, and what we call social networks today are simply a new interface for gathering and displaying social information; albeit incorporating various layers of additional functionality. These additional layers of functionality allow a critical mass of individuals to perform tasks previously reserved for those with programming capabilities. It is because of these layers that, beyond being an application for personal Web site publishing, today's social networks are also a Web- based application for networking, people searching, linking, personal content access control, content generation/personalization, and incorporation of advanced unique tools (aka wiki's). And all of these functions require very little, if any, technical expertise.
It is these additional layer of functionality, beyond static publishing of content, that defines Web 2.0 and sets today's social networks apart from yesterday's GeoCities. It is the simplicity of applying these tools that allows for a critical mass of users, combined with the utility that the application of these tools can provide, that in turn drives adoption. Without each of these components -- ease of use and utility -- provided, there would not be the critical adoption necessary to allow any of the so-called social networks to sustain a member base.
While the functionality, and therefore potential utility, of social networking applications have grown exponentially, adoption (outside of the younger demographics) and monetization has lagged. A major reason for this has been the utter lack of the ubiquity Stone's article so logically calls for. Stone makes a great comparison between today's big social networks and "walled-off destinations, similar to first-generation online services like America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy." We all know how much the Internet communities love walls.
Taking a deeper look at what makes up a social network, one will see that there are really two sides: the projection of social content (online personas), and the social home page (searching, organizing and monitoring other social content). Online personas, like our real-world personas, fall into three major categories: professional, social and family. There is an image we project to each of these major groupings and even various personas we may wish to project within each of these groupings based on the nature of specific relationships. Niche social networks are trying to address this need, in the end creating an individual social network for any and all ways we may be associated with people in real life. Imagine how this plays out; a social network for my sports groups, one for my current job, one for my alumni, one for my family, one for hobby one, another for hobby two, another for my New York friends...and on and on. I am not a fan of maintaining more than two email addresses, and I only have to check those. To maintain the integrity of a social network, the social content must not only be available -- but it must be maintained. I know that I will not be maintaining five or six different online personas.
This brings us to the other side of today's social networks: using them as a social content home page, a way to manage time and relationships as well as make new friends. This dashboard has evolved from a means to edit your own social content to an aggregator of the social content you wish to keep tabs on. When you combine aggregator functionality with the social networks' potential application for social, professional and family, it's easy to see a not too distant future where everyone has an account for online projection of self, a means by which to edit that projection and a dashboard for aggregating and organizing other social content.
Suspend all knowledge of current social networks for a minute. Now imagine what, given today's technologies, would be an ideal social network. There is no way that the first thought that comes to mind isn't more openness and interoperability. Everyone decides on the interface that he likes best, and uses that as his digital representation of self and social content home page. Users can than manage their digital representation and connections, as well as levels of access for various connections or connection types.Much of this can come from standardization, but interoperability will really only occur when the current networks walls come down (or new social networks without walls blossom in their place). Next-generation social networks will be ubiquitous, to say the least. Armies of programmers will develop the tools that continue to add value to the base functionality provided by the social networks, which must be completely open to these tools' integration. People will ask for, and share, their social network addresses as readily (or in place of) email and phone numbers, because this is where most of us will start, end and spend a good portion of our days, online. The future of social networks will be far more than a portal to other individual online personas. Picture all of the most useful functionality of the web; the diggs, the rss feeds, video, picture and file sharing, search, etc. all blending together through social-network-like interfaces. The monetization needs to come after utility, unless it can become an actual component of the utility.
What are the most important aspects of future social networks in your mind?