Within the academic community, there has been a push by various groups to provide a "Facebook for Scientists", a "Facebook for Scholars", or similar things. This is to sell you something, of course. I am skeptical of this approach, since we already have Facebook, and I don't want to join and contribute to yet another social network, especially if I don't know its long term sustainability.
Let's try to follow a systematic approach. As a starting point, I would like to point you to a nice submission by Roger Curry, Cameron Kiddle and Rob Simmonds to our recent GCE09 workshop. The authors looked at using Facebook, Ning, and Elgg as three social networking platforms. You know Facebook, and you probably know that Ning is a social networking hosting service. Elgg was new to me: it is a downloadable software package, like Drupal or Mambo. Unlike Drupal, however, Elgg is designed from the beginning to be a social networking platform rather than a content management system.
Curry, Kiddle, and Simmonds's paper presents three detailed case studies. I would add some additional remarks on requirements. First, a new social networking site should be compatible with existing social networks and related standards. I should be able to import in my existing profile and social networking information. I should also be able to reuse my identity from another site. I don't want to remember yet another password. Similarly, I should be able to export my social networking information. I don't want to get locked in. OpenID, OpenSocial, OAuth, and related standards may make it easier to share one's identity and information across social networking services.
Second, development flexibility is important. Of the three social networks Curry et al reviewed, Ning's hosted service was generally the least favored. Part of this was because of the advertisements, but it was also noted that access to Ning source code was limited. If you are considering a hosted service, you need also to consider the development framework that you will be required to use, its strengths, and its weaknesses.
Third, I want to use the best available implementation of a capability, which may not be the one that comes in the software. For example, there are many wikis and calendaring tools. I want the ability to easily import these tools into a social networking framework. I don't want to rely upon the wiki or calendar plugin that comes with some particular framework.
For these reasons, I have become very interested in Google Friend Connect (GFC) as a way to build social networking science gateways (and credit goes to Raminder Singh and Gerald Guo in our lab for introducing this to me). Gadgets are particularly interesting in that they are a client-side technology: any Web development framework can be used to develop gadgets. We have developed an open source gadget container (see http://www.collab-ogce.org/ogce/index.php/OGCE_Gadget_Container) that can be used to host your own gadgets. We discuss these things in more detail and provide an implementation case study in our own workshop paper.
In subsequent posts, I'll look at GFC in a little more detail to examine its potential for science gateway social networks.