Yesterday I called social networks “virtual playgrounds.” Honestly, I thought that I would have received more comments. Either people have already accepted the fact that social applications are not about utility or people were instead angered by the post. Last night I read Jeff Atwood’s post about Clay Shirky’s new book and the topic arose again. One quote from Clay’s book stood out:

“Social software” is about making it easy for people to do other things that make them happy: meeting, communicating, and hooking up.

He also suggests that when we develop social software we should think of a 22 year-old college student in his dorm room and using the application to get laid (and hence the title of this post). I don’t want to reiterate a lot of what I wrote about yesterday but the bottom line is clear: social applications are about helping people communicate and connect. As I think more about the lack of social utilities on social networking sites/platforms, I begin to wonder if the main hurdle facing these applications is not their lack of utility, design or anything else. I think the main hurdle is simply that they are on the parent social networking site.

If I’m running a mid-sized company and I want to use a conference room to dial up a few internal employees, logging into Facebook just doesn’t seem like the way to do it. If there was a screen built into the phone that I could navigate to find the individuals and add them to the call, that would make a lot of sense however. Integration of Facebook into that phone seems like a feasible solution.

At some point there is a division between our professional and social lives. While that division is becoming blurred it will never totally disappear. Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and other social networking sites have been successful at attracting people that want to use the sites to enhance their social lives. This was the way that Facebook was initially used (and still is used today).

Honestly, I think Facebook is going to have some serious challenges trying to convince their users that the site is not just for fun. That’s a whole other story though. The bottom line is this: the success of a social application is based on the ease of use and simplicity, the environment that the application exists in, its ability to solve problems facing users in those environments and its ability to facilitate collaboration and conversation.

I also think that the failure of applications can be attributed to those same factors. So what are the problems facing most Facebook users? Well given their primary demographic being 18-30 year olds, dating is a serious issue. Social network sites help facilitate dating especially among college students and as such dating applications are extremely successful on the site.

Social interaction among friends is also a need of the users so games that help the users facilitate a dialogue with their friends have been extremely successful. I’d like to write a follow-up post with more analysis on the factors most important to the success of social applications but for now I’ll leave you with a couple questions. What factors do you think are most important for the success of social applications? Do you think Facebook will be successful at getting a large portion of users to use utility focused applications?