What are people actually doing on social networks?

This is a question that has been pre-occupying me for a couple of days now, and it doesn’t seem like there are any really good answers.

It is important because it goes to the sustainability of social networks – as individual companies and as a nascent industry.  As with any new web service there is an initial buzz of activity from new people when they join and then this settles down to a lower level of activity which is maintained over the long term – and if there is enough activity there is a good business.

Social networks have continued to rise and rise, and whilst I don’t think many people would argue that there isn’t enough base level activity to sustain a company the extent of that activity, and hence the potential of the category could be clearer.  Or to put it another way, I think the opportunity is large, but understanding what the long term sustainable activity looks like would improve my confidence in that conclusion.

I think the issue is complicated by the varying activities on different social nets and the difficulty of separating new activity from sustainable activity in such a fast growing market.

I can see for myself that the long term activity is around status updates (broadcasting my own and getting quick updates from my friends) and a couple of Facebook apps – most notably BlogFriends (which uses the social graph to deliver a mean feed reader).

I’d love to know what the answer is for the social networking population at large though.  I was on a panel yesterday at a Silicon Valley Connect conference here in London and people didn’t seem to have the answer.

I suspect it is some combination of:

  • Profile hopping
  • Messaging (this is starting to become a drag for me)
  • Managing events
  • Discovering music (particularly Myspace)
  • Expressing identity (particularly on the kids nets)

How the X hours per week that people spend on average on Facebook etc. splits across these and other activities would be great to know, and any news on sources would be very welcome.