The added features aren't likely to remain exclusive for long. Facebook might already be working on a solution to add it. (Hat tip: Jamie Sanford by way of Ike Pigott). It won't be long before Twitter starts barking up the same tree. And that's what inspired this post, along with a conversation fragment with Geoff Livingston, Dane Morgan, and Tony Berkman.
How Many General Social Networks Can One Endure?
My guess, ultimately, is one to none. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are moving in a peculiar direction. Specifically, it looks like they are moving forward but they are really moving backward. People don't want one social network to do everything. Do they?
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them...
Rings and circles. I can't really trust them, even if I like them. They might be easier than Facebook groups (and less annoying). They might attract much less spam than Twitter, even if that will change as the population explodes. But at the end of the day, Google, Facebook, Twitter and a half a dozen others are looking for the One Ring. And if anyone gets it again, it will end badly.
Again? Yes, again. The original welder was America Online. We just didn't think to call it that at the time, but it was a social network that for several years meant all things to all people (still does, for some, if you can imagine).
Ironically, it was Google, Yahoo, and other search engines that cut the One Ring from the finger of those service providers after Apple relinquished eWorld and the online experience descended into the darkness of Sauron Case. The world was a better place without it, much more colorful and diverse. So why on earth would anyone want a repeat?
As humans, we can't really help it. All of nature is predisposed toward order. We thrive on it, making bigger and bigger systems until the weight of it becomes unsustainable. History is littered with the rise and demise of such empires. And, we often forget, Internet is too.
MyBlogLog and Technorati come to mind. One collapsed and another was greatly diminished as each of them began the quest to operate beyond their spheres. In part, it's because as prone as humans are to order, they are equally prone to seek freedom and the wonderful chaos that accompanies it.
Niche Networks Tend To Better Define Environments.
Much like the historical and fantastical empires, it seems to me that generalized networks become unsustainable. People like to confine their activities to the definitions of their environments: they act one way at work and another way at a concert; this way at a church and that way at a bar; this way on one social network and that way on another.
Follow the same group of people from the bachelor party to the ceremony to the reception to the after-reception party to the gift opening, and the social norms will change. Same people; different behaviors.
Major networks, on the other hand, provide the same environment and then ask you to behave differently based on the people in the room. It's backwards, mostly because any social behavior is established by the first person who blinks but only because we're all grasping at straws.
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone ...
Maybe it's because human sociology and adaptability isn't attached to groups of people as much as the environment. We almost can't help it.
This might also explain the primary reasons Facebook (originally a college network) was fast and loose on the front end and slowly became more formal as family members and future employers asked to connect. It's the likely reason quick exchange conversations have taken a back seat to link sharing on Twitter. And it's probably the reason Google Buzz crashed when it failed to establish a culture of what to do there. It wasn't just a matter of who was there, but the purpose of the space.
One of several projects my team is working on right now is a social network of sorts (social network is the closest definition without giving up details). For the last three months, I've been working as one of the principal developers while the board seeks out about $3.5 million in initial funding. (Once we have funding, I'll be allowed to share some alpha invites for a few people.)
What we are doing differently is focusing considerable attention on the environment. And, given it will have a much narrower purpose (with no incentive to pine away your hours looking for conversations to establish presence, eyeballs, or gratuitous activity), it won't compete with any existing network. Instead, it will feel more personal, important, and purposeful — someplace you go for special occasions as opposed to the daily grind.
In some ways, it is what the big networks ought to have been thinking about. Google had some semblance of authority, Facebook had some semblance of social casual, and Twitter eventually became (and then abandoned) a modern version of an AOL chat room.
So does anybody else have it right? There are a few developers who seem like they are on the right track. Of the biggest, it seems to me Apple is one of them. If you want to know why, drop by on Friday when I intend to flesh out why the iTunes Festival 2011 London App represents the future of entertainment.