Written by Ebrahim Ezzy and edited by Richard MacManus. Note: there is also a poll at end of this post, which we invite you to participate in.
MySpace is booming in popularity; Facebook is gracing the headlines again; Bebo is growing incredibly; Tribe relaunched; Cyworld, Hive7 and SecondLife are nothing short of a phenomenon; LinkedIn is becoming 'People Search'; ITToolbox relaunched with a host of social networking features; Friendster is now refueling itself to enter the market again.
Put simply, social networking is hot and there is plenty of money and action in the SNS space to prove it.
Short History of Social Networks
Match and Classmates. The notion of social networking first formally appeared on the Internet in the late 1990s, with services like FireFly, eGroups/OneList, ICQ and Evite - which allowed groups of people to coordinate certain kinds of interaction.Social Networks have a history almost as long as RSS. Aspects of social networks have long been present in dating services such as
It was not until 2003 that social networks became truly mainstream - with the advent of Friendster. Shortly thereafter, there was a wave of social networks. Adopting small-world theory, services like Tribe, Orkut, LinkedIn and Spoke emerged - allowing users to better organize and expand their recreational and business networks.
Today: "Social Network 3.0"
Today, social networks are enormously popular. The benefits can be seen at the multiplier level - people mentor each other through the formation of communities; and they network and inspire each other by example and input. Social networks protect people from the vastness of cyberspace and offer tools to find each other, organize and share information, or just keep in touch with friends.
Social networking sites have proliferated in the span of the past year. While I don't have actual numbers, Wiikipedia tells us that there are at least two hundred social networks, with scores of new ones appearing each day. While some of these services focus on teens, others target individual professionals and some aim at organizations like businesses and graduate schools.
Venture capitalist David Hornik recently wrote about what he calls 'Social Networks 3.0':
"I believe that we are now in Social Networks 3.0. After a fair bit of excitement and energy around pure play social networks, it became clear that the building and management of a social network was not, in and of itself, a compelling consumer experience. In a nod back to the earliest instantiations of social networking, entrepreneurs have come to realize that social networks are enablers of other compelling consumer experiences. Thus, social networks are becoming an important ingredient of all sorts of consumer experiences...
I believe that social networking will be a crucial element of virtually all online consumer experiences going forward. And truly compelling online consumer experiences will always make successful companies."
Overview of the current Social Networking Space
There are hundreds of emergent social networks, but I've shortlisted a few that are worth keeping an eye on (apart from the obvious ones, like MySpace and Facebook):
A great resource for finding talented, like-minded, and socially responsible people - upon whom you can network for work opportunities, contract jobs, sales or partnership discussions. There has been some talk about whether LinkedIn will expand beyond its niche. Co-Founder and Vice President Marketing at LinkedIn Konstantin Guericke commented recently that perhaps there is no need for that:
"LinkedIn has been profitable for the past six months, and revenues are growing very quickly. I'm not sure who else can say that."
CollectiveX is social groupware suitable for a user-group, special-interest group, or any other like-minded group of people who share similar goals. It combines certain team collaboration features - including group emails, shared scheduling, file sharing and bulk email services etc.. This sets it apart from other social networks. Michael Arrington's review supports my view, that CollectiveX is social networking "the way it should have been done in the first place."
PeopleAggregator [disclosure: Richard does work for them] is a meta social network system, meaning it enables you to connect other social networking services together. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is the Identity Hub, where you can login to other systems via PeopleAggregator. Another feature of PeopleAggregator is that you can import and export your data with relative ease - i.e. it's an open system, unlike MySpace for example. This vision is still being built out, but the idea is that eventually you'll be able to send messages, create relationships, join or create groups, and post content between social networks.
Wetpaint allows you to create free hosted websites, using wiki technology. It describes itself as a combination of "wikis, blogs, and social networks" and encourages people to create topic-focused sites. For example check out this wetpaint site devoted to dogs, called WikiFido.
Great for those who like the idea of sharing their lives, but not necessarily every facet of their lives. So privacy and user control are its main selling points. There is also a lot of granularity as to how users can define relationships - e.g. husband, roommate, business contact are some of the options. For more on these types of services, check out Ken Yarmosh's R/WW post Smart Social Networks. Multiply currently claims nearly 3 million registered users.
Allows sharing of all types of media content - blogs, photos, audio, and video. In the words of Wikipedia, it "has both a social network structure as well as a content browsing/filtering structure". In that sense it enables you to create a social network dynamically and in real time.
Points to Ponder
Does more members in a network make a users life better?
Instead of simply allowing the users to create and manage friendship flow charts, social networks need to enable them to do something. Users should be empowered to control and utilize their social networks in a meaningful and protected way.
What's the purpose of social networking?
Several mainstream social networks focus squarely on numbers - page views, number of members, hits etc. And there's nnothing wrong with that, it's a valid business approach. But social networks play on our desire to be a part of something big, which might never happen...
So social networking is great, as long as it can serve its purpose by connecting people in a meaningful way - and for a meaningful purpose.
Over time, I believe, people will get tired of the vast and generic theme of mainstream social networks - and move towards niche or vertical social networks that will serve their passions and interests.
So, will niche or vertical social networks take off?
Helping match people with content is a worthwhile pursuit. We're already seeing a new wave of niche social networks that are building social-enabled sites around content-oriented channels - e.g. pets, books, music, cars, shopping, travel.
But social networks require a critical mass to thrive. So it will be interesting to see how the smaller, niche social networks deal with their much smaller user bases.
However, due to their focus, they do seem prepared to tackle the potential social networking bust that lies ahead.
Time for a silver bullet
The value of social networking, in general, is diminished with each new service entering the field. There's a need for some standards in the social networking space, as it is difficult to maintain profiles at each social network.
Many of the fun-seeking Myspacers may actually be the very same respectful businessmen at LinkedIn, just with an adjusted profile (and maybe an adjusted name to go with it). So what we require is a system that connects all social networks - that a user is a member of - and shares basic functionalities. This would allow users to choose a system with the features and approach that best suits them.
Or better yet, instead of being confined to one giant centralized social network, we should move to social groupwares - like CollectiveX and PeopleAggregator - that enable users to build their own meta social networks, based on their passions and interests. This way, numerous social networks will proliferate - each with unique form and function.