Regular readers will know I have been pondering the question of what people are actually doing during the hours they spend on social networks each week. My earlier posts are here, here and here.
I think this will be the last post on the subject, and this little thought journey has led me to the conclusion that these sites are more different than I had thought – sufficiently different in fact that it is probably wrong to think of sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Myspace, Bebo, Piczo etc. as full competitors.
Let me paint a picture of what it is that people are spending their time doing, at least as I see it. This has come from reading blogs and research, talking to experts (including entrepreneurs and investors in this space) and looking at my own behaviour and that of my friends. It is not definitive and will almost certainly include some of the sorts of generalisations that irritate me when I read them elsewhere. If you find any of those please tell me!!
My first observation is that there is a flurry of initial activity when any user joins a new network. This covers exploring the site, building up the friends list and developing the profile page. This is pretty similar on all sites, and Danah Boyd describes it well in this essay.
After the initial burst of activity the average user will settle down to a more consistent pattern of behaviour. The average social networker is a member of 3-5 sites and they will split their time across the different properties managing their local network and doing what each site is best for.
There is one common element to that across all sites – which is profile-hopping, a form of entertainment that could be characterised as gentle voyeurism.
Beyond that I think things start to look a bit different depending on which network you are talking about.
Facebook is mostly about communication – people spend most of their time sending status updates, private messages, writing on people’s walls, poking people and messaging groups to organise events. The photo sharing element shouldn’t be forgotten though.
Myspace it seems is much more about the music – discovering, consuming and participating as a fan. That said there is a good deal of communication and self expression as well.
Piczo could be thought of as the opposite to Facebook. The emphasis is squarely on self expression and communication is limited. New users are given a blank page on which to build their profile – no templates for guidance and infinitely more creative options than Facebook. In an effort to provide a safe environment communication is made difficult – there is no search function to find people. If you would like to chat with someone then you need to get their Piczo URL by some means other than Piczo itself – e.g. written on a piece of paper in the playground.
LinkedIn is mostly about hiring and finding jobs. The dominant use case is working the network to look for a job or find people to hire.
Of the sites listed here Bebo is the one I know least well. I mention it because of their recent push into TV/video. They are very successful with school children which tells me that communication and self expression are important – but it is interesting that they want to move the experience towards media consumption.
As a result of these differences (or maybe because of them) the demographic profile of these sites is very different.
Danah makes the point that successful sites often form the online component for dense offline communities (at least to start with) – e.g. Bebo in UK schools, Facebook in US universities, and Myspace for some LA communities. That is a communication function.
If this view is right, then these different sites are partial competitors.
If Danah is right, and I think she is, then one would expect fierce competition between the socnets to get the different offline communities to pick them as the destination of choice (and Danah’s essay is in large part about how that played out between Myspace and Freindster) – but then after that one would expect the strategies would differ as the sites cater to the interests of their different groups to generate long term sustainable activity on the sites.
This logic would explain the Bebo move into media, the way Myspace has embraced music and the LinkedIn focus on jobs.
As these strategies develop these sites might start to become more and more different and therefore to compete less and less. They will then become analagous to general media properties – competing with each other (and everyone else) for attention rather than on the basis of who has the best feature/function. More like a soap opera versus a sitcom than Eastenders versus Coronation Street.
For this to be true there has to be more long term sustainable activity than initial flurry activity and I don’t think we are there yet (execpt maybe on LinkedIn), and the network specific activities need to be more important than entertainment via profile hopping. I think we will get to this position over time – but it is too early to say that for sure.