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Online social networking services are complex applications with a large number of features. However, these features can be roughly grouped into a few common categories:
User features are features that relate directly to and with the user. For example, the ability to create and share their own profiles, and the ability to share status and activities are user features. Community features are features that connect users with each other. An example of this is the friends list feature, which shows the number of friends a user has connected with in the social network.
Content sharing features are quite easy to understand. These are features that allow a user to share his self-created content with other users, for example photo sharing or blogging. Social bookmarking features are those features that allow users to share content they have discovered with other users, such as sharing links and tagging items with labels. Finally, developer features are features that allow external developers to access the services and data in the social networks.
While the social networking services out in the market often try to differentiate themselves from each other in order to gain an edge over their competition, in this article we will be building a stereotypical online social networking service. We will be choosing only a few of the more common features in each category, except for developer features, which for practical reasons will not be implemented here.
Let's look at these features we will implement in Colony, by category.
User features are features that relate directly to users:
- Users' activities on the system are broadcast to friends as an activity feed.
- Users can post brief status updates to all users.
- Users can add or remove friends by inviting them to link up. Friendship in both ways need to be approved by the recipient of the invitation.
Community features connect users with each other:
- Users can post to a wall belonging to a user, group, or event. A wall is a place where any user can post on and can be viewed by all users.
- Users can send private messages to other users.
- Users can create events that represent an actual event in the real world. Events pull together users, content, and provide basic event management capabilities, such as RSVP.
- Users can form and join groups. Groups represent a grouping of like-minded people and pulls together users and content. Groups are permanent.
- Users can comment on various types of shared and created content including photos, pages, statuses, and activities. Comments are textual only.
- Users can indicate that they like most types of shared and created content including photos, pages, statuses, and activities.
Content sharing features allow users to share content, either self-generated or discovered, with other users:
- Users can create albums and upload photos to them
- Users can create standalone pages belonging to them or attached pages belonging to events and groups
Online social networking services grew from existing communications and community services, often evolving and incorporating features and capabilities from those services.
Designing the clone
Now that we have the list of features that we want to implement for Colony, let's start designing the clone.
Authentication, access control, and user management
Authentication is done through RPX, which means we delegate authentication to a third party provider such as Google, Yahoo!, or Facebook. Access control however is still done by Colony, while user management functions are shared between the authentication provider and Colony.
Access control in Colony is done on all data, which prevents user from accessing data that they are not allowed to. This is done through control of the user account, to which all other data for a user belongs. In most cases a user is not allowed access to any data that does not belong to him/her (that is not shared to everyone). In some cases though access is implicit; for example, an event is accessible to be viewed only if you are the organizer of the event.
As before, user management is a shared responsibility between the third party provider and the clone. The provider handles password management and general security while Colony stores a simple set of profile information for the user.
Allowing you to send status updates about yourself is a major feature of all social networking services. This feature allows the user, a member of the social networking service, to announce and define his presence as well as state of mind to his network.
In Colony, only the user's friends can read the statuses. Remember that a user's friend is someone validated and approved by the user and not just anyone off the street who happens to follow that user.
Status updates belong to a single user but are viewable to all friends as a part of the user's activity feed.
User activity feeds and news feeds
Activity feeds, activity streams, or life streams are continuous streams of information on a user's activities. Activity feeds go beyond just status updates; they are a digital trace of a user's activity in the social network, which includes his status updates. This include public actions like posting to a wall, uploading photos, and commenting on content, but not private actions like sending messages to individuals. The user's activity feed is visible to all users who visit his user page.
Activity feeds are a subset of news feeds that is an aggregate of activity feeds of the user and his network. News feeds give an insight into the user's activities as well as the activities of his network. In the design of our clone, the user's activity feed is what you see when you visit the user page, for example http://colony.saush. com/user/sausheong, while the news feed is what you see when you first log in to Colony, that's the landing page. This design is quite common to many social networking services.
Friends list and inviting users to join
One of the reasons why social networking services are so wildly successful is the ability to reach out to old friends or colleagues, and also to see friends of your friends. To clone this feature we provide a standard friends list and an option to search for friends. Searching for friends allows you to find other users in the system by their nicknames or their full names. By viewing a user's page, we are able to see his friends and therefore see his friend's user pages as well.
Another critical feature in social networking services is the ability to invite friends and spread the word around. In Colony we tap on the capabilities of Facebook and invite friends who are already on Facebook to use Colony. While there is a certain amount of irony (using another social networking service to implement a feature of your social networking service), it makes a lot of practical sense, as Facebook is already one of the most popular social networking services on the planet. To implement this, we will use Facebook Connect. However, this means if the user wants to reach out and get others to join him in Colony he will need to log into Facebook to do so.
As with most features, the implementation can be done in many ways and Facebook Connect (or any other type of third-party integration for that matter) is only one of them. Another popular strategy is to use web mail clients such as Yahoo! Mail or Gmail, and extract user contacts with the permission of the user. The e-mails extracted this way can be used as a mailing list to send to potential users. This is in fact a strategy used by Facebook.
Posting to the wall
A wall is a place where users can post messages. Walls are meant to be publicly read by all visitors. In a way it is like a virtual cork bulletin board that users can pin their messages on to be read by anyone. Wall posts are meant to be short public messages. The Messages feature can be used to send private messages.
A wall can belong to a user, an event, or a group and each of these owning entities can have only one wall. This means any post sent to a user, event, or group is automatically placed on its one and only wall.
A message on a wall is called a post, which in Colony is just a text message (Facebook's original implementation was text only but later extended to other types of media). Posts can be remarked on and are not threaded. Posts are placed on the wall in a reverse chronological order in a way that the latest post remains at the top of the wall.
The messaging feature of Colony is a private messaging mechanism. Messages are sent by senders and received by recipients. Messages that are received by a user are placed into an inbox while messages that the user sent are placed into a sent box. For Colony we will not be implementing folders so these are the only two message folders that every user has.
Messages sent to and received from users are threaded and ordered by time. We thread the messages in order to group different messages sent back and forth as part of an ongoing conversation. Threaded messages are sorted in chronological order, where the last received message is at the bottom of the message thread.
Events can be thought of as locations in time where people can come together for an activity. Social networking services often act as a nexus for a community so organizing and attending events is a natural extension of the features of a social networking service. Events have a wall, venue, date, and time where the event is happening, and can have event-specific pages that allow users to customize and market their event.
In Colony we categorize users who attend events by their attendance status. Confirmed users are users who have confirmed their attendance. Pending users are users who haven't yet decided to attend the event. Declined users are users who have declined to attend the event after they have been invited. Declinations are explicit; there is an invisible group of users who are in none of the above three types.
Attracting users to events or simply keeping them informed is a critical part of making this or any feature successful. To do so, we suggest events to users and display the suggested events in the user's landing page. The suggestion algorithm is simple, we just go through each of the user's friends and see which other events they have confirmed attending, and then suggest that event to the user.
Besides suggestions, the other means of discovering events are through the activity feeds (whenever an event is created, it is logged as an activity and published on the activity feed) and through user pages, where the list of a user's pages are also displayed. All events are public, as with content created within events like wall posts and pages.
Social networking services are made of people and people have a tendency to form groups or categories based on common characteristics or interests. The idea of groups in Colony is to facilitate such grouping of people with a simple set of features. Conceptually groups and events are very similar to each other, except that groups are not time-based like events, and don't have a concept of attendance. Groups have members, a wall, and can have specific pages created by the group.
Colony's capabilities to attract users to groups are slightly weaker than in events. Colony only suggests groups in the groups page rather than the landing page. However, groups also allow discovery through activity feeds and through user pages. Colony has only public groups and no restriction on who can join these public groups.
Commenting on and liking content
Two popular and common features in many consumer focused web applications are reviews and ratings. Reviews and ratings allow users to provide reviews (or comments) or ratings to editorial or user-generated content. The stereotypical review and ratings feature is Amazon.com's book review and rating, which allows users to provide book reviews as well as rate the book from one to five stars.
Colony's review feature is called comments. Comments are applicable to all user-generated content such as status updates, wall posts, photos, and pages. Comments provide a means for users to review the content and give critique or encouragement to the content creator.
Colony's rating feature is simple and follows Facebook's popular rating feature, called likes. While many rating features provide a range of one to five stars for the users to choose, Colony (and Facebook) asks the user to indicate if he likes the content. There is no dislike though, so the fewer number of likes a piece of content, the less popular it is.
Colony's comments and liking feature is applicable to all user-generated content such as statuses, photos, wall posts, activities, and pages.
Photos are one of the most popular types of user-generated content shared online, with users uploading 3 billion photos a month on Facebook; it's an important feature to include in Colony.
The basic concept of photo sharing in Colony is that each user can have one or more albums and each album can have one or more photos. Photos can be commented, liked, and annotated.
Blogging with pages
Colony's pages are a means of allowing users to create their own full-page content, and attach it to their own accounts, a page, or a group. A user, event, or group can own one or more pages. Pages are meant to be user-generated content so the entire content of the page is written by the user. However in order to keep the look and feel consistent throughout the site, the page will be styled according to Colony's look and feel. To do this we only allow users to enter Markdown, a lightweight markup language that takes many cues from existing conventions for marking up plain text in e-mail. Markdown converts its marked-up text input to valid, well-formed XHTML. We use it here in Colony to let users write content easily without worrying about layout or creating a consistent look and feel.
Technologies and platforms used
We use a number of technologies in this article, mainly revolving around the Ruby programming language and its various libraries. In addition to Ruby and its libraries we also use mashups, which are described next.
While the main features in the applications are all provided for, sometimes we still depend on other services provided by other providers. In this article we use four such external services—RPX for user web authentication, Gravatar for avatar services, Amazon Web Services S3 for photo storage, and Facebook Connect for reaching out to users on Facebook.
Facebook has a number of technologies and APIs used to interact and integrate with their platform, and Facebook Connect is one of them. Facebook Connect is a set of APIs that let users bring their identity and information into the application itself. We use Facebook Connect to send out requests to a user's friends, inviting them to join our social network.
Note that for the user invitation feature, once a user has logged in through Facebook with RPX, he is considered to have logged into Facebook Connect and therefore can send invitations immediately without logging in again.
In this article, we described some of the essential features of Facebook and we categorized the features into User, Community, and Content sharing features. After that, we went into a high level discussion on these various features and how we implement them in our Facebook clone, Colony. After that, we went briefly into the various technologies used in the clone.
In the next article, we will be building the Facebook clone using Ruby.
- Building the Facebook Clone using Ruby [article]
- URL Shorteners – Designing the TinyURL Clone with Ruby [article]