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What makes a sustainable social networking site

Posted in all posts, social software, web by coleman yee on January 3, 2009

Over the past couple of years, the successes of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have captured the imagination of many. Maybe too many.

In the past year or so, I’ve met quite a number of people building or working on social networking sites.

Most of those sites aren’t too compelling, even if some of them are enjoying moderate success now. If I were an investor, most of them wouldn’t get a single cent from me. Maybe just two cents – in the form of advice.

So, which types of social networking site would I invest in?

To put it another way, what kinds social networking sites are truly sustainable?

Sustainable #1: All-Inclusive Social Network

These are the social networks that try to cater to the largest and widest audience, to include anyone and everyone, and they probably hope to have everyone in the world on their site.

Like Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, and many others.

If I were to invest in a social network, I would consider investing in an All -Inclusive Social Network. But it had better be good. Really good. In fact, before users will consider flocking over to it, that new social network has to be at least an order of magnitude better than Facebook, like how Facebook is better than Friendster, with Facebook’s far superior usability and extensibility (where developers can create Facebook apps to extend its functionality).

If it’s hard to imagine a social network that’s an order of magnitude better than Facebook, it’s even harder to build one, not to mention terribly risky as well.

We thus might want to consider more palatable alternatives, like Exclusive Social Networks.

Sustainable #2: Exclusive Social Network

I’m using “exclusive” for lack of a better word (I almost wanted to use “repellent”).

An Exclusive Social Network is one where members or insiders don’t want to mix with non-members or outsiders, or don’t want outsiders to know who they are.

Exclusive Social Networks would include those for the rich, famous and powerful, like aSmallWorld, where the members don’t really want to many mere mortals like us to be bothering them with friend requests; or the US spy social network (A-Space).

A child porn network would be a good example too (although I don’t know of any), as are social networks for other kinds of secret societies.

Closely related and somewhat overlapping with the Exclusive Social Network is the Alternate Persona Social Network.

Sustainable #3: Alternate Persona Social Network

Again, “alternate persona” is not ideal, but will have to suffice for now.

An Alternate Persona Social Network is one where the member takes on a persona that is different or even incompatible with their persona used in the All-Inclusive Social Network.

Examples include:

  • LinkedIn, where members display their professional personas, versus their drunken party Facebook personas.
  • SecondLife, where members use their fantasy personas (hardly anyone there is short, fat, or balding).
  • Ridemakerz, where members become custom toy cars (for kids) – fantasy personas as well.
  • Dating sites, where members may project a different side of their personalities. Dating sites could also fall under the previous (“exclusive”) category, if they don’t want friends to know they are trawling the internet for more “friends”…

Unsustainable: Niche Social Network

This is really the flamebait part of my post, as those people working on Niche Social Networks probably won’t like my ideas here.

Niche Social Networks are social networks that cater to a certain niche, but don’t fall into any of the sustainable categories mentioned above.

They may have special features, or cater to specific audiences or activities, like social networks that center around

  • photos (like Flickr)
  • videos (like Seesmic)
  • mobile phone access
  • books
  • sports
  • etc.

Take Flickr for example. While not considered a social networking site by everyone, it is certainly one of the most popular photo sharing sites around. Except that Facebook has already overtaken it in terms of photos uploaded.

That’s despite Flickr having more useful photo features, like hi-res photos, more powerful tagging, and so on. If Facebook implements some of these features, Flickr’s position will be further threatened.

Same with the other Niche Social Networks – much of their success depends on Facebook’s deficiencies – which puts them in a rather precarious position.

The unfortunate thing is, most of the social networks that I see people working on now belong to this category. Some of them have pretty decent products with great features backed by great technology. I wouldn’t bet on them.

Which reminds me of someone I know who developed a really nice book-centered social networking site, BookJetty. I was a happy user of it, until I added a book sharing app on Facebook, which was when I stopped using BookJetty. This is despite the fact that that Facebook app is far inferior in terms of features and usability.

If you can’t beat em…

There’s still hope for the Niche Social Network.

One way to survive or even thrive is just to develop a Facebook app to complement or replace the Niche Social Network.

For instance, if Flickr had a well-integrated Flickr Facebook app that is as fast and as easy to use as Facebook’s native photo features, but with the additional Flickr features, I’d use it. And because Flickr is focused on photo features, it won’t be hard for them to stay a step ahead of Facebook’s native photo features.

Or if my BookJetty friend started a Facebook app early on (and how I wish that he did), I would have stuck with it. If he were to do it now, I would switch only if it could easily import all my books from the current book app I’m now using, and if my reading friends would switch along with me.

With Facebook’s growing popularity, it won’t be a surprise to anyone when it eventually becomes the top social networking site in the world, making it quite sensible to ride on its extensive reach, as it marches towards world domination.

Except that it world domination is harder than it looks…

Why there won’t be an Super All-Inclusive Social Network

The reality is that we live in a culturally uneven world, and this will likely be the case for a very long time to come, so it will be difficult for Facebook or any other All-Inclusive Social Network to dominate every country in the world.

Which is why All-Inclusive Social Networks like Facebook and MySpace are making little headway into places like China, Japan and South Korea, which already have their own native social networks.

Conclusion

One soon realizes that the business of social networks isn’t an easy one.

If you build it, they may not come.

To create an All-Inclusive Social Network that can outdo Facebook will take a lot of inspiration and genius. And that’s just to get started.

Alternate-Persona Social Networks aren’t easy as well. Besides starting with a compelling idea, it’ll likely require custom technology that probably isn’t easily available (like SecondLife)

Probably the easiest to succeed are the Exclusive Social Networks – just identify the right audience (cannibals?), and have a good strategy to reach that audience. The technology is mostly already there.

Just don’t fall into the trap of doing a Niche Social Network. Or if you read this too late, turn it into a Facebook app first thing tomorrow morning.

* * *

Thanks to Bernard Leong on whom I tested these ideas over coffee one afternoon.

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