What Elgg gets right
The open source social networking application Elgg has been around for a while now. Many schools and other groups have taken advantage of the free showcase Elgg.net site while others have set up their own Elgg sites over at Elgg Spaces. I've looked at many different social networking applications, both proprietory and open source, but I keep coming back to Elgg because of the number of things Elgg gets right.
Among the things Elgg gets right are:
A user-centric rather than content-centric approach
Rather than older discussion or blogging systems that add eprofiles as an after thought, Elgg is built around them from the ground up. It is striking to see that older "community" systems keep the focus on the discussion threads or the blog entries and link the poster's name off to often quite simple user profiles. Elgg does the opposite - the content is linked off from the rich profiles and user spaces. Of course, anyone can aggregate all the content he or she likes through RSS feeds (see below) - a far more flexible approach than rigidly hierarchical and predetermined discussion forums.
Taxonomy through a fixed tree of subject keywords has been around for more than a century. Tags are different.
The ability to add free form tags to standard content is liberating. You no longer need to worry whether to place a thread in a forum on Oceans, for example, or Climate Change. What if the thread is about coral bleaching due to increased water temperature? Tags let you associate a piece of content with as many topics as you desire, and the ability to invent your own means that you can branch out into taxonomies never envisioned by the people who set up the system.
Where tags really come into their own, however, is in eprofiles.
The rich Elgg eprofiles use tags in numerous fields: Interests, Aspirations, Likes and Dislikes are just a few. Other social networking systems like MySpace or the Dutch Hyves make eprofile content linkable, but this is just fed into a full text search engine.
Elgg takes advantage of the eprofile metadata. If you click on Britney Spears in the "dislike" field of your eprofile, Elgg won't show you a gang of teeny boppers who have her in their "like" field. As you get to know people in the system, you will notice commonly used tags that describe your own inclinations, and adding these to your eprofile will allow you to find an ever widening community of similar people.
Other social networking systems make it possible to restrict the visibility of your content to predefined groups such as logged-in users or the people on your friends list. Elgg allows for much more finely tuned access groups that go right down to restricting access for some content to a list of specific users. This reflects the reality that differing content has different audiences. The audience for a piece of content may change during its lifetime as well, as it evolves from a draft to a finished product. Changing the access is a simple as selecting from a drop down list of groups.
Search is an important feature for any website, especially for a site with content created by potentially thousands of users. Elgg has a rich search system to look for tag content throughout the system or filtered by user or community. It doesn't currently seem to be able to do full text search - that would be a useful addition in some cases.
Where Elgg really shines is the ability to add search queries to a "resource" page in the form of RSS feeds. The resource page also allows the addition of external RSS feeds to pull in content from a huge variety of sources, including video from YouTube, still images from Flickr, bookmarks from del.icio.us and podcasts and other content from a wide variety of news, blog and discussion sites.
Once these content feeds are set up, Elgg can combine them all together into one aggregate feed, giving you or any visitor to your personal space exactly what content you want to see as soon as it is available.
It is important that a personal space reflect the personality of the creator. Content does this to some extent, but so does visual appearance. One of the reasons for the success of the blogging software WordPress is the ability to customise its appearance. (For example, this site lists almost 1000 WordPress themes in one (very long!) page.)
Commercial social networking sites offer limited customisation but Elgg goes beyond this, allowing WordPress-scale customisation. Elgg 0.7 will go even further in this direction and allow users to optionally display a series of small customisable content "widgets" on a dashboard page.
Elgg gives individual users unprecedented power to define their own personal spaces and to find people like themselves in a potentially huge member base. This creates an enormous shift from traditional content-based sites to new user-based ones.
Elgg is still under development and lacks some of the bells and whistles of more traditional content management systems (CMSs) like private messaging or newsletter subscriptions. One school of thought is that this quite common functionality should not be embedded in Elgg itself but that the powerful and unique Elgg features should be made available to established CMSs through integration code. Some of these integration efforts are now underway.
The combination of Elgg's powerful new features and one or more traditional content management systems would create incredibly useful software for any organisation interested in engaging a large number of people. Stay tuned.