Fred and I had an interesting e-mail exchange the other day about his theory that "Every web service should be social."
I hesitated to go that far, mostly because I'm feeling a little personal backlash against the idea of every service being explicitly social.
Take WebMD, for example. Maybe one day, I'll be able to login to WebMD and get all my personal medical history there, but for now, its a good place to get questions answered like, "What is this purple growth on my pinky toe?"
That's not exactly the kind of question I want to broadcast to a group, nor do I want an armchair diagnosis from Louise from Chattenooga. I also don't want to be friends with other people with purple growths on their pinky toes. In fact, if WebMD were suddenly morphed into a more explicit social sharing community about health, I actually might be less inclined to use it and so would others, because its not necessarily the kind of think the mainstream is comfortable being social about.
However, that doesn't mean the fact that 34% of all 27 year old males in Bay Ridge have this issue isn't useful to me. "People like you...", a concept Amazon pioneered and really nailed, is indeed a very powerful social feature. But, if you asked most people, you wouldn't normally think of Amazon as a "social" web service.
Would Amazon be even better if they became a social network and aggregated all my reviews, purchases, etc. into profiles? Can I have Amazon friends? Clearly, not every user would necessarily want their Amazon purchases so prominently displayed, but giving people the option to publish a public profile could be an interesting move for them.
So, what I'm saying is... aggregated social data can be a fantastic addition to a site, but making the core of your service to be explicitly social may not be. It goes back to the idea that a service needs to work if you're the only user and you don't care about the community. del.icio.us worked at one user in a way that Digg never would.
Allowing users to commune... that can also be an added feature, but it's important to make sure that it doesn't alienate users who aren't interested. There are many people who don't want their web experience to be social. They see the web as convenient, easy, on demand, but social isn't necessarily want out of their web, even if us designers and product managers and VC think that makes the web universally better.
Social doesn't always mean friends and a public profile... it can mean data aggregation, design, filtering... and be careful about alienating the people who want to just buy their Slurpee without having to tell the guy at the 7-11 counter about their kids and where they're from.