“Six of the 19 found doing the task using Gmail’s contact manager intolerable and gave up,” reported MacLean. A statistical analysis of the results showed that SocialFlows was significantly faster and easier to use, and the groups it generated were significantly more useful than those created with Gmail.
Eric Gilbert, who recently started a research lab at Georgia Tech to analyze social media and explore new types of design for social Web services, says that managing friends lists is “a problem space calling out for a solution.” He previously built a service called WeMeddle that automatically creates lists of a person’s Twitter contacts from their past activity.
Gilbert says SocialFlows does a good job of taming the complexities of creating lists of different types of friends. But creating lists is, in some ways, just a first step. “A remaining challenge is, how do you control how you communicate and message the people in these lists,” he says. Neither SocialFlows nor WeMeddle have taken that next step, says Gilbert, but this may be much more complex than simply deriving groups. “The stream, which lumps everything together, has come to be seen as very central to social media,” he explains. This fact makes Facebook, Twitter, and other services currently unsuited to maintaining separate social circles within a larger network.
That’s not something MacLean and colleagues plan to take on soon, though. The researchers are focusing on making tweaks to the algorithms and studying how the social groups they identify in people’s data change over time. In the future, SocialFlows may even be able to suggest changes to a person’s friend lists as his or her collection of contacts and patterns of communication evolve. “Ideally, [SocialFlows] would suggest changes to your current topology rather than wiping [out] all of the changes you already made, as it does now,” said MacLean.