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SURF THIS: Thicker than MySpace: Family networking on the Web

January 7, 2008

Ah, the holidays...a chance to spend a whole lot of time with people you don't see that often. And, in some cases, it becomes painfully clear why not. Still, reminiscing with Aunt Helga about those long ago experiences when bread was a nickel and she walked to school through the snow, uphill (both ways) can still be rewarding, if done in moderation.

Or on your own time, which is the point of this article.

I almost hate to write it, but I feel compelled. While having coffee with a friend recently, he suggested that I write about MyFamily.com(www.myfamily.com), a site that is a bit of a mash-up of blogs, video posting, shared calendars, social networking and a family tree. It piqued my interest, especially the social networking angle. The truth is, I'm not a big fan of social networks. I belong to several, but more out of curiosity and research than for some actual use. I honestly can't quite figure out the point of MySpace or Facebook, but I'm nearly ready to attribute my lack of understanding to age. As I understand it, people under 25 can't live without one or the other. Admittedly, 25 was a long time ago, so I'm increasingly accepting that maybe I'm just not "with it" anymore. Maybe I never was.

But that's precisely my point about social networks. They seem to be springing up everywhere now, with little or no regard to necessity. So far, I've received invitations to join networks on MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Sigma Chi, 43 Things, StumbledUpon, Flickr, Twitter, Pownce, Classmates, Flixster, Gather... well, you get the point. I contend, however, that most of us have suitable social networks and that the tools that work for us (like LinkedIn and Plaxo) are popular for their usefulness, not their social implications. With Plaxo, for instance, I find it very convenient that people in my network can let me know instantly and automatically when their email address changes. But since they're already in my address book, there's really no need to create an additional, pseudo-social network with them included.

MyFamily is different (or maybe the same) in that it provides useful, intuitive tools to help transfer and share information among people who are already in the most powerful social network there is: your family. Even in this world of instant communication, email, blogs, YouTube (and even RSS feeds, more on that next time), I'm still forced to visit several places-or be a fairly sophisticated user-to keep up to date on everything that's going on, even as it relates to a small network like my family.

MyFamily helps you compile all of this information in one place, allowing everyone in the family to post their own messages, photos, videos, news, and events for everyone else to see.

The site design is minimalist, which is good, since most user-generated content will tend to add clutter. It's simple to understand and intuitive to use, meaning that even the most "I'm afraid I'll break it" centered people in your family will be able to use it with minimal guidance. Multiple members can be given administrator privileges, so it's easy to grow the membership list organically with widely spread family trees. You can also create subsets, so one family site can house multiple sites within the overall umbrella.

The one downside is also one of the compelling reasons to use a site like this: it can eliminate email threads. This is nice for a couple of reasons. First, the site can serve as a repository for family news and stories and ensure that they don't get lost in email. It can also cut down on the amount of email that is generated by people hitting "Reply to All..."

On the other hand, the information is kept on the site, instead of in email messages, so it forces people to find their way to yet another destination to read about Aunt Helga's more recent exploits. But since they can do so on their own schedule, the benefits seem to outweigh the drawbacks.

Give MyFamily.coma try for your family and let me know what you think. I'll be interested to know how it works for your social network.



Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com
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