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.


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.

12 Responses

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  1. Kevin said, on January 3, 2009 at 4:09 am

    Coleman, cutting to the chase, aren’t we already in the era where veteran netizens are realizing that quality supercedes quantity.

    IMHO, I grow tired of having a large following, but with little interaction in-between. Niche networks and exclusive networks are both realizations of Quality over Quantity. (e.g. @MrTweet user popularity, my favorite Ning.com networks)

    Both niche and exclusive networks have pure function or topical expertise (e.g. Flickr Bento Box groups, DIY Drones, media socialist).

    Classification of networks is also a moving target, because users get to decide on content.

    Flickr could also be seen as more encompassing than Facebook, I know users on flickr and not facebook because they prefer to focus on subject / interest, not self-presentation.

    Furthermore, there are discovery elements (strangers leaving great comments) and interactions in flickr you won’t find as much in Facebook, from expert photography tips, to sharing gadget pornography.

    Despite facebook getting more photo views and uploads, most of it seems to revolve around voyeurism and offers little pursuit of intellectual else (to capitalize on this, start a porn social network like YouPorn.com; they get massive traffic you won’t see reported in the media!).

    I find a lot more quality in Flickr than I do with Facebook, though again, hard to measure since they focus on different things.

    Do note that in most “exclusive network” cases, it’s the subject matter itself which makes it exclusive (prior knowledge for discussion), not so much if someone gets invited. Knowledge and experience being natural barriers to entry.

    …And that’s my big two-cents 😉

  2. bernardleong said, on January 3, 2009 at 10:16 am

    For niche social networks to work, it requires one important element: the adjacency to a business in the offline world where there is a definite monetization strategy that translate the online to the offline world. There are two types of such networks which connect to a business offline: (i) a social network constructed by a major corporation to bring together fans and allow customization or request for certain products, e.g. the SWATCH social network (http://www.swatchtheclub.com/index_home.php), (ii) a social network that directly translates an online activity to an offline transaction where dating and jobs social networks are the usual suspects.

    I thought about the argument on why Facebook cannot encompass all dating social networks. One reason is that some people want to keep their dating and other aspects of online social life to be seperate. Similarly, Linkedin cannot encompass all job sites, because job search and hunting are very localized activities which are confined to specific region. In fact, unless you are looking for a job in North America or Europe, I have not seen people who managed to find a job in Asia.

    That’s so far I have from my first read on the article.

  3. Kevin said, on January 3, 2009 at 10:54 am

    I my haste I forgot to mention: Pro subscription model. I see that as the way to go for the future. Works for flickr, LinkedIn and all.

    Dedicated users support the site’s existence by providing financial well-being, lower-end users support by providing presence and attention.

  4. coleman yee said, on January 3, 2009 at 11:07 am

    @Kevin: With a properly-designed Facebook app, you could have Quality within Quantity.

    Indeed there are many reasons why many people currently prefer Flickr over Facebook. But given my hypothetical Flickr Facebook app (or another Facebook photo app that includes many of Flickr’s current strengths), users would prefer to share their photos through that app, with convenience being a major factor (a point that I should have been clearer about), as what happened in my BookJetty anecdote.

    There would still a core group of Flickr users who would remain, but mostly because of Exclusive/Alternate-Persona reasons – e.g. they don’t want people to know who’s behind the photos they’ve been posting.

    But because Flickr isn’t fundamentally an Exclusive/Alternate-Persona Social Network, unless it somehow evolves into one, it would always be at the mercy of Facebook or a Facebook app.

  5. Kevin said, on January 3, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Coleman, you’re implying that Facebook, being an incumbent network for all, could subsume Flickr as a Facebook app?

    It is possible, especially for the convenience factor, but as we know with most conglomerates, they don’t really handle the details as well as dedicated ones.

    I have a feeling that we’re going to see more integration of networks, 1) because users naturally have Social Networking Services (SNS) fatigue, 2) because integration begets more user content.

    Selfishly, I’ve read that Facebook lets users include other networks into their system, but refuses to share it’s network with other networks such as http://www.power.com. See NYT’s Facebook Is No Friend of Power.com. I fear power mongering on Facebook’s part, but it appears more of an argument of who gets to set the standard.

    We’ll see… I enjoy the diversity of SNS, it disperses power. What I do want, as you’ve mentioned though, is the convenience of integration.

  6. Yuhui said, on January 3, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Firstly, it’s interesting that you list Facebook under All-Inclusive Social Network. It started off as an Exclusive Social Network (or even Alternate Persona Social Network) because it required members to be a student of a U.S. higher education institute. Of course, it has since opened its doors to anyone, allowing even Jesus to have a Facebook account.

    Secondly, with regards to “sustainable”, do you mean in financial terms or size of membership base? Facebook has only recently started its advertising service but still relies on investments. Flickr already has a working revenue model through its subscription service. If you are referring to membership base, it’s possible that AdultFriendFinder (which recently announced its IPO) would beat Facebook (based on anecdotal evidence).

    Even in terms of membership base, are you looking globally, regionally or locally? Friendster is still the most used social network in the Philippines, Orkut in Brazil, Hi5 (!) in Thailand. And don’t forget the East Asian Axis (my label): China, Korea and Japan.

    Thirdly, I’m amused by how you single out Flickr for criticism. There are already Facebook apps that allow Flickr images to be viewed within Facebook profiles (I’m using one of them), though none are developed by Flickr. Also, since Flickr’s images can be viewed through RSS, and Facebook has lots of RSS reader apps, it’s also possible to display Flickr’s images through a Facebook RSS app.

    But like @Kevin said, I think Flickr caters to an audience that values its photo storage and manipulating service.

    Given the vast reach of the Internet and the varied interests that a single person possesses, I don’t think it’s fair to say that niche social networks are doomed to failure. Other factors, like quality of product/service, intensity/strategy of marketing, etc., also can have an impact on whether something becomes sustainable or not.

    Case in point: Google continues to trump Live.com in terms of search, even though Microsoft has embedded Live.com within its Windows installed base. Size doesn’t always matter.

  7. coleman yee said, on January 3, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    @Bernard: a monetization strategy which translates to an offline world would certainly help a Niche Social Network sustain, as would other factors like good execution etc., but I would maintain that it eventually is a non-issue. If an equally compelling Facebook app appears with the same monetization strategy translating to the offline world, the days of the Niche network will be numbered.

    The Swatch example is a nice exception. The product is controlled by the company – a rip-off facebook Swatch app not endorsed by the company will never have the advantages of the legitimate Swatch niche network.

    But if I were Swatch, I’d start a Facebook app – I’d get more members this way.

  8. coleman yee said, on January 3, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    @Kevin: Flickr’s monetization strategy is currently profitable. But if there’s another Facebook photo app that includes many of Flickr’s current strengths, Flickr’s current ability to monetize will cease to be an issue. The Flickr users will migrate to the app, and Flickr will cease to be sustainable.

    So you got me partly right when you say that Facebook “could subsume Flickr as a Facebook app”. It doesn’t have to be Facebook itself however – it could be just a Facebook app developer.

    Yes, I fully agree with your points on social network fatigue and integration – these were some of my implicit assumptions in my post. Thanks for surfacing them.

    I think diversity of SNS is important as you mentioned. But eventually, human nature will win out – most people don’t want to maintain too many social networks. Would we eventually end up with an incumbent All-Inclusive Social Network co-existing with one or two other less pervasive All-Inclusive Social Networks, much like with the Windows, Mac, and Linux?

    I don’t know.

  9. coleman yee said, on January 3, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    @Yuhui: Facebook may not have started as an All-Inclusive, but it is one now, which is all that matters now. It looks to me that MySpace may be shifting towards the Niche model with its music licensing etc. As long as Facebook or Facebook apps can’t get those licensing deals, MySpace should remain safe as an exception, much like Bernard’s Swatch example.

    I’m keeping the definition of “sustainable” loose, but I meant long-term sustainability. Your Facebook/Flickr example is irrelevant because Facebook’s current strategy is on expansion, not profitability, while Flickr’s current profitability would disappear together with its members, given the scenario I painted in my previous comment to Kevin.

    As for AdultFriendFinder, it’s an excellent example of an Alternate Persona Social Network. Highly sustainable.

    Anyway, you misunderstand my Flickr “criticism”. Those Flickr Facebook apps are hardly equivalent to Flickr in terms of functionality. Again, see my previous comment to Kevin.

    Yes, “quality of product/service, intensity/strategy of marketing, etc.” certainly matter, but I’m keeping these out of the discussion by assuming they are more or less equal, as these aren’t the most fundamental factors that affect the sustainability of the social network.

    So, if we have a competing Flickr Facebook app, everything else being equal (“quality of product/service, intensity/strategy of marketing, etc.”), Flickr will not sustain.

  10. weekee said, on January 4, 2009 at 2:02 am

    interesting entry but got some questions

    What is long term sustainability? The ability to get more users or active engagement of existing users? The thing that i am not sure is whether all SNS should use the same metric when comparing. Could SNS be campaign based?

    Why would you invest in a social network if you have the money (assuming it meet your sustainable criteria)?

    I think there is still opportunity in niche SNS. Currently most are still completing on features and not many have a good CRM in place considering the fact that they could have more detailed information on their members profile compared on what is available on sites like facebook.

    Agree on your point that a compelling facebook app might be a substitute for a niche sns and at the same time i think that niche sns has still a long way to go and there might still be merit in it especially when it gets integrated into the rest of organization process, e.g. dell ideastorm, etc.

  11. coleman yee said, on January 5, 2009 at 12:38 am

    @Weekee: as in my response to Yuhui, I’m keeping the definition of “sustainability” loose. But I’d think that the number of users would be the primary factor, although some level of engagement has to be there too.

    Not sure what you mean by campaign-based.

    I’m not advocating investing in a social network. I’m just using the hypothetical situation of me being an investor as an angle to approach this issue.

    Facebook apps are also able to collect additional member information, over and above what Facebook itself collects.

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