12 September 2008

Too many social networks!

There are too many social networking sites out there, each one different, many with interesting content.

Each one requires me to enter my profile details again, has a different menu structure, unique facilities, and specialist functions. We need something better.

Let me explain. For a while now I've been a member of Facebook (which I like and use regularly) and MySpace (which I don't like and rarely visit now). I'm also a member of various mailing lists and several specialist social networking sites, mostly to do with church.

For each one of these systems I have to enter my profile details all over again, but in a slightly different way. I have to learn a new and different way of working, a new set of menus and functions.

I was prompted to post this blog item when a friend emailed me details of a community building tool (Oikos) and asked me what I think about it.

There's a real problem here - it will be resolved eventually for sure, but meanwhile it will make life harder and harder for us all. The problem is that there are so many of these systems and the number is increasing dramatically all the time. There are even sites that offer 'roll your own' facilities (like Ning, and Oikos). I need more systems like I need a hole in the head!

What do we really need? - We need one system that lets us put in our user profile once, and then party with as many subgroups as we choose. In my case that might be a general organic church group, a local area christian group involving believers from every background and opinion, an astronomy group, a techie web software group, a history group, a group for my workmates, a photography group, and perhaps half a dozen others.

Facebook can do that already. And in a different way, so can Ning. We'll come back to Facebook and Ning later.

I predict that in the short term groups will proliferate, and they'll proliferate until people become heartily fed up with accessing so many. From then on a few will grow larger and larger at the expense of the smaller ones. The few are already growing in size, but we're still in the proliferation stage with new social networking sites coming on line daily - perhaps thousands of them daily, certainly hundreds.

One approach might be an agreed system for syndicating profiles around different systems. That would certainly help, but the navigation and feel of the systems would still be different and we'd have to learn our way around each one. There is at least one standard out there already and some systems are supporting it.

So - back to Facebook and Ning. Both systems offer a solution but they do it in very different ways.

The Facebook model - here we see an overall system that lets you join, select friends, and also select groups.

In practice most users will have a circle of friends composed of work colleagues, family, college friends, large or small geographical groups (my town, my state, my street - whatever), and people who share a common interest.

Many users will join groups on specific interests (I'm a member of several local groups, church groups, astronomy groups and so forth). These will include some Facebook friends but also many Facebook 'strangers'. The shared interest will normally be enough to keep the group buzz going, the conversations and shared resources will always be of interest providing they remain on topic.

All the groups work in the same way, use the same navigation, and have the same sort of arrangement on the page. As a user I can navigate very easily from a group to a friend's page, to my messages, to a group on another topic, all pretty much seamlessly and without having to login to a different website or learn a new style of operation. Joining a new group is not a big deal.

This is good!

The Ning model - Here the emphasis is on the groups, not on the friends. Using Ning, you or I can roll our own social networking site and invite interested parties to join up. We can run our own 'Facebook'.

At first sight this merely makes the proliferation of online social networks even more severe, it's easier than ever to create a new one!

But Ning has a real advantage here, if you sign up to several Ning-based systems your personal profile is shared between them. What's more, they all work in the same way. They may look a little different (colour, graphics, and to some extent layout), but they all share structure, navigation, and features. Ning sites are like Lego models, they look different but they're made of the same kind of parts. If you know how Lego works you'll have no problem recognising a Lego construction, using it, or altering it.

This is good too!

Ning or Facebook? - Which is best? In the end they're pretty similar. Ning is Facebook groups. Facebook groups are Ning social networks. If Ning added a feature to let you choose and interact with specific people outside the social networks it would be just like Facebook. And if Facebook allowed you to access a group as a separate website it would be just like Ning.

The two systems emphasise slightly different aspects but could so easily grow to be much more alike. One underlying difference is that you don't need to be a Ning member to join a Ning-built social network. Anyone with internet access can join in. But not everyone is on Facebook, not everyone wants to join Facebook. So a Facebook group is inaccessible to a whole section of the internet community. From an individual's perspective this may not appear to be a problem, but for someone planning to build a social network it may be a serious issue.

Which of the two will win out? It's much too early to say. Both have grown very fast indeed and show no sign of stopping. Both make it easy to set up a social space for a specific purpose. There are plenty of other systems and organisations out there, Yahoo, Google, or Microsoft in particular could muscle in on the act very quickly if they chose to stake a claim.

What does the future hold? - Here's my best guess.
  • In the short term, more proliferation but with continuing market share going to Facebook and to a lesser degree Ning. Facebook has, I think, more mass-market appeal than Ning.
  • In three years time expect to see more and more of the small players fall by the wayside, while Facebook, Ning, and one or more of Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft clean up.
  • Long term, expect two or three dominant players to emerge. One will take 75% to 95% of the share, one or two others will fight over the rest.
  • Expect the unexpected. There might be a major corporate takeover or two. One of the smaller players might come out with something innovative and grow from less than 1% share to become the major force in this space.
  • A major open source contribution is likely. This has happened in other areas of computing with Linux, Apache, Open Office, MediaWiki, and the GIMP.

There will be a shakeout, that much is certain. It will make life easier for everyone but at the same time restrict our choices. We've seen the same process with operating systems, word processors, spreadsheets, web browsers and more. History repeats itself. The end result is always one major player and a small number of niche alternatives.

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