Social Networking: Time For A Silver Bullet

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; Triberelaunched;
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

Social
Networks have a history almost as long as RSS. Aspects of social networks have long been
present in dating services such as 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. 

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.”

(emphasis ours)

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):

LinkedIn

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

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

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

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.

Multiply

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. 

Imeem

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. petsbooks, musiccars, 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.

Poll


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