A panel at KDD 2008 called "Social Networks: Looking Ahead" was more remarkable for the questions it failed to answer than the ones it did.
One question that was repeatedly presented to the panel was how to make money off social networks. Underlying this question, and at least once stated explicitly, was the issue of whether social networks really matter or are just the latest flash in the pan, the latest bubble, and soon to fade if people find the riches they deliver fall short of their absurdly hyped expectations.
The best answer to this question came only at the very end, sneaking in when the session was already over, from panel chair Andrew Tompkins. Andrew said that he thought that what was most likely is that most money would be made from understanding an individual in a network and their immediate neighborhood. He expected that, as the space matured, the more theoretical work that we see now that looks at global patterns and trends across different types of social networks would continue, but the emphasis would shift to understanding each person in the network and from their behavior and their immediate neighbors to help people find and discover things they want.
Another question that came up and went largely unanswered was, are social networks really application specific? That is, are the patterns we see in one network (e.g. mobile) distinct from what we see in another (e.g. LinkedIn) because people use these tools differently? There was some evidence for this in one of the conference papers where there was a rather unusual distribution (PDF) reported in the contact lists of Sprint mobile customers because of how people use their mobile devices. The general issue here is that there is a different meaning of a link between people -- A friend? A colleague? Someone I e-mailed once? -- in each of these applications, so it is not clear that conclusions we draw from analyzing one social network generalize to others.
And this leads to another question, are social networks just a feature? That is, are social networks just a part of an application, not an thing worth anything by itself? For example, is our e-mail contact list only important in the context of e-mail? Is Facebook just a tool for communication, like IM, but not really best described as a social network? This came up a bit during the Q&A with the panel when someone suggested that perhaps we were just using one hammer -- graph analysis -- on every problem when the graph might not actually best capture what is important, the underlying activity in the application.
Though it was not discussed at all during the panel, two of the panelists focused their work on privacy, which made me wish I had asked, do we really have firm evidence that people care about privacy in these social applications? Instead, it seems people say they care about privacy but then freely give away private information when asked (). From what I can tell, we do not really know to what extent privacy really matters to social networking application users, do we?
In the end, it seems many questions remain, some of them quite basic, on the where social networks are going. At this point, it is not even quite clear we know precisely what social networks are, much less whether they have an independent future.