TripItGate has me thinking about how to make social network invitations more useful, less spammy, and less of a hassle.

Invitations are a standard part of social network signups and usage. When you join a social network, you’re typically asked to connect with friends who are already using the same service. If you’re willing to share your username and password on other systems — like Gmail, AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter — the network you’ve just joined can suck all your contacts in from your other networks, and tell you who you know on the network you’ve just joined.

Since most social media services are more useful if you have a critical mass of buddies or contacts, it’s very helpful to get users up and running with a set of buddies. It’s so helpful, in fact, that on the networks I use regularly — like LinkedIn and Facebook — I regularly visit the “invite friends” page so I can find any new buddies who’ve joined since I first signed up.

That’s where the hassle comes in: to keep my networks up-to-date on every site I use, I have to regularly visit the “find friends” pages on a whole lot of sites. What makes this doubly annoying is that it’s the same crew I’m (re)connecting with on site after site: the chronic Web 2.0 adopters who (like me) join a lot of social networks.

Rather than importing and updating my contact list on each individual network, I want a universal connector service. I’m envisioning a single dashboard, based on my core set of contacts — in my case, probably my Gmail contact list (though a good connector dashboard would let you start by importing contacts from Google, AIM, MSN or a half-dozen other sites). By giving the connector my username and password on all the networks I belong to, it could give me one-stop access to harmonizing my buddy lists across all sites by showing me who I know on each network.

I could use the service as a one-stop replacement for all the individual “invite friends” pages on my various networks. Or I could set up the service to automatically buddy people whenever they join a network I use. My guess is most people would go for automatic buddying, but even for those who want to hand-select each connection, a single dashboard is a big efficiency gain.

Here’s my first try at mocking up (in a painfully ugly way) what that could look like:

Universal connector mockup

Ugh! That’s not just ugly, it’s overwhelming. So how about a simpler approach: just show me a list of my contacts, with icons for each of the networks they are on. I’ll click the networks I want to connect on.

In this mockup, the selected networks are highlighted, and the deselected ones fade to the background.

I’d love to see a user interface geek play around with this idea to find a good way to implement. But whatever the interface, a universal connector service could offer some key benefits:

Quickly grow your buddy/contact lists on each network, without having to constantly check for new friends who’ve joined.

  • Choose the most relevant networks to join. Whether you want to use Eventful or Upcoming, Facebook or Friendster, depends on who you know that uses each service. Seeing where your contacts hang out is a great way of scanning for the most useful services.
  • Reduce invitation spam. By handling all invitations in one place I’d avoid sending people unwanted invitations to services they haven’t yet joined.

Of all the services I use, it strikes me that Google, Facebook, FriendFeed and Plaxo are the four most obvious contenders for this “universal connector” role:

  • Facebook because social networking is what it’s all about. But I have a lot of contacts who won’t join Facebook on principle, and I’m not convinced Facebook is particularly interested in moving my network activity onto other sites.
  • Google is more universal (it’s hard for me to imagine any chronic social networkers who don’t have a Gmail or Google account), and while it too has a stake in the social networking market, it’s easier for me to imagine Google supporting other networks, too.
  • FriendFeed isn’t as big, but the connector service would fit nicely with the way FF connects with other socila networks; instead of just pulling my content in, FF could also sync my contacts across the networks I plug in.
  • Plaxo because connecting people is its core value proposition. Since it’s already keeping my contact info synced, why not treat network membership as another kind of contact field to be synced?

I recognize there are a few complexities here. For one, contacts vary by context. There are colleagues I connect with on LinkedIn who don’t need to see my kid pictures on Flickr. There are acquaintances I chat with on Twitter who don’t need to see my travel itinerary on TripIt. That problem can be handled with nuanced permissions: the ability to set a contact as “friend on all networks”, or to select network-by-network where I want to buddy each person. You could even group networks into categories (“professional”, “personal”, “family”); marking someone as “family” would add them to all the networks in your family category.

And while I’m dreaming, I’d like to skip past the rigamarole of sending and accepting invitations. If I’ve added you to my “friend on all networks” list, and you’ve added me to your “friend on all networks” list, I want us to just get connected, without any added invitations or steps. I recognize that this “auto invite” feature is a tall order, and unlikely to be supported by every API. But my hope is that OpenSocial will eventually allow me to have just this kind of automatic connecting.

So, friends, have at it:

  • Techies: I’d love to hear about the technical obstacles to this (or alternately, your brilliant ideas for implementation)
  • UI (user interface) people: How would you improve on these very rough sketches so that people can centralize the invitation process without developing an acute case of checkbox-itis?
  • Networkers, buddies and friends: Does this idea appeal to you? Would you use a universal connector service — and what would you want it to do for you?