Friday, 5 January 2007

Outspacing MySpace

In a world where every two-bit geek plans global domination by outspacing MySpace, you have to wonder how many social networks does the world need. Remember when venture capital poured good money after bad into a bottomless pit of portals. Are we witnessing another bubble in the making or do social networks have some staying power?

On GigaOM, Robert Young writes "For social networks, 2007 is about money" and continues to use the dastardly 'monetization' word not once, but three times! Let's forgive him because, this abomination aside, he makes some interesting points. The main problem is that it's really cheap to advertise on these sites - which is fine if you are MySpace with millions and millions of page views but not so good if you are a network of mummers and morris dancers with a handful of loyal fans. And it seems that social networkers don't like ads which results in a poor responses. All in all, a pretty grim prospect on the revenue front.

But there's hope lurking in the very nature of social networks - at their core they are about people, not about products. Young proposes that brand communication must include these people, use them to amplify and extend messaging - "So just don’t advertise at them, advertise with and through them." As the social network space gets cluttered and crowded, more niche networks are emerging which can provide attractive brand channels for advertisers. If social networks get the business model right, this emerging medium will take the web to new reaches.

The early web had a top down approach to content because:

  • With the possible exception of karaoke, the concept of a self-expressive medium was unknown.
  • Tools were crude.
  • Users lacked skills and expectations.
Self-expression got an early start in chat rooms but unless you invested some time and money in HTML skills and tools, you couldn't do much more than chat. It wasn't until blogs came along that the real fun began and internet users became an unstoppable force. Despite the worst excesses of SPAM blogs and the most saccharine sins of corporate blogs, the blogosphere holds its own as a medium for individual self-expression. As the tools have matured, so have the bloggers - to a point where they are the first place we go for breaking news and opinions, and where corporate PR campaigns ignore them at their peril.

Now tech-savvy users with fat broadband connections can express like never before to communities of people with similar interests. It's early days yet and lots of the content and network concepts clearly reflect this, but as long as there is a chance that YouTube hides the next Stephen Spielberg, social networks will engage and absorb us.

Wikipedia has a list of "significant" social networking sites that includes some 90 sites.