There has been a lot of chat in the blogosphere recently about Facebook overtaking Myspace, then on the value of international traffic compared with US domestic traffic – both on Techcrunch and GigaOM, and finally asking if the implication of Facebook over-taking Myspace is that network effects for social networks have been overstated (this is a great post from Andrew Chen).

All of this has got me thinking that social networks are better understood as media or entertainment rather than a communications tool or network.

People talk more about ‘wasting time’ on Facebook than staying in touch with people or any other constructive activity. They profile hop, check out people’s pictures, and that sort of thing. Thought about in this way socnets can be seen as a game. The main activities are collecting friends and building out a profile. The brilliance of the Facebook API was that it extended the game by adding vampire bites and other similar activities.

Then like any game it started to get boring. The overall stats kept looking good because so many new people were playing the game that the growth kept going for quite a while, but as is well documented growth is plateauing now.

On this analysis socnets are vulnerable to the same here today, gone tomorrow, phenomena as any film or TV show. Their sheer size and presence in the lives of so many people gives them some protection – but if they don’t stay interesting they will start to fade away.

Om Malik put it this way in the GigaOM post I also linked to above:

In other words, Social Networks need to find new purposes for people to come back every day and be loyal. I had argued in my previous post that the world of social networks is going to be divided into two – the big players (MySpace, Facebook) and niche players (Dogster, Dopplr etc.) [I include the reference to niche, because niche drives interest]

The two main initiatives at the major socnets recognise this risk – data portability and open APIs are both attempts to become platforms that are an important part of some other interesting activity – that either happens inside the socnet via widgets of Facebook apps, or outside of it using the data from the socnet. Either way the socnet gains a relevance and importance that is lost once the user has finished building their profile, got bored of surfing other people’s photos and of sending vampire bites.

For a while now I have been saying that virtual worlds are best understood as media properties, perhaps analogous to TV channels. We all have favourites, but we have several that use regularly, and they all change over time. The good news is that this means there is space for lots of successful virtual worlds, the bad news is that none of them will be worth as much as Google, or probably even Facebook’s famed $15bn.

I am now thinking that socnets could be similar. Whether they are or not will depend on whether they successfully transform themselves into platforms.

  • Socnets are actually getting boring as well as any real world society would. That’s the way things are, and also that was totally predictable from the look at the society itself. That’s why people invent new things to entertain themselves, and so should socnets do.

  • Socnets are actually getting boring as well as any real world society would. That’s the way things are, and also that was totally predictable from the look at the society itself. That’s why people invent new things to entertain themselves, and so should socnets do.

  • Aaron

    There are now thousands of social networks that cater to a whole variety of subjects. These smaller, focused sites allow users to connect with like-minded people and give advertisers targeted demographics. Niche social networks are also good for marketers who have a product or service they want to promote that relates to a particular interest. A good place to find such sites is this search engine for social networks

  • There’s been an interesting episode on Faceparty (see The Register for more details) where an almighty row has occurred between the users (who don’t pay anything for the service) and the providers (who don’t get paid to provide the service).

    When a social network starts there seems to be a collaborative approach from users and developers alike, combining to build something they can all use and enjoy. A symbiotic relationship ensues. However, once a level of critical mass is reached the users start seeing themselves as “customers” and the developers as a Service Provider, almost expecting some sort of Service Level Agreement for a service they’ve never paid for. This in turn can switch to resentment and result in the users leaving for “someone who treats them better” such as another up and coming network. The resentment escalates rapidly when investment and increased valuations occur.

    It will be interesting to watch how Twitter develops. It’s still in the position where users accept (and expect) that the service will be down on a regular basis but that is close to switching to resentment rather than a slight irritation. And they’ve just had new investment.

    Social Networks need to be able to handle this change in the relationship with their users as part of any repositioning or transformation.

  • There’s been an interesting episode on Faceparty (see The Register for more details) where an almighty row has occurred between the users (who don’t pay anything for the service) and the providers (who don’t get paid to provide the service).

    When a social network starts there seems to be a collaborative approach from users and developers alike, combining to build something they can all use and enjoy. A symbiotic relationship ensues. However, once a level of critical mass is reached the users start seeing themselves as “customers” and the developers as a Service Provider, almost expecting some sort of Service Level Agreement for a service they’ve never paid for. This in turn can switch to resentment and result in the users leaving for “someone who treats them better” such as another up and coming network. The resentment escalates rapidly when investment and increased valuations occur.

    It will be interesting to watch how Twitter develops. It’s still in the position where users accept (and expect) that the service will be down on a regular basis but that is close to switching to resentment rather than a slight irritation. And they’ve just had new investment.

    Social Networks need to be able to handle this change in the relationship with their users as part of any repositioning or transformation.

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