Friday, January 6

Changing Social Networks: Five Big Changes In Progress

Sometimes social network developers feel like they're in a foot race. If they aren't moving forward and making big changes, the general thinking is that they are somehow falling behind. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they aren't.

But social networks are compelled to make changes whether they need them or not, and I've been told as much by people who own them. The only hold out among bigger networks is Reddit. It relishes its own roughness and the people love them for it.

Personally, I like change. It's why I do what I do. 

But not all change is good. So why is it almost every social network is undergoing change, with Linkedin and Google+ being the least obvious? They think they have to, with the latter network not as obvious because it's currently implementing changes around its network instead.

For example, not everyone noticed that Google+ gave Blogger users the option to replace their Blogger profile with a Google+ profile. I work with several platforms, including Blogger, so I noticed. I made the change too, which came with some unintended consequences like changing my Blogger post signature from Rich to Richard Becker. The cost is a certain casualness, but I can live with it.

The rest are undergoing more obvious changes. Some are good. Most aren't. Let's look at five.

The five most significant social network changes taking place right now.

1. Facebook. Facebook wants people to migrate to Timeline. On the surface, it's not a big deal. It's a new graphically-intensive look for the largest social network on the block. Under the hood, Timeline is not a small deal. It will change the way you think about Facebook.

Pros. For professionals, especially those in communication, the personal marketing potential is right on target. The branding opportunities are apparent; so much so that some people have changed their tone. There isn't much they can do about the past. That quip in 2009 is alive and well on the front page.

Cons. For most people, Timeline makes Facebook feel more formal. For the exact same reason personal marketers like Timeline, most people do not. They did not sign up for Facebook to tell their story. They signed up to connect and have fun. Timeline also places privacy in the forefront once again, but that is an entirely different conversation.

Outcome. Mostly neutral. The best thing about Timeline is the look and that it is optional, for now. Over time, Timeline is the direction Facebook wants to go. While this scrapbook concept is okay, it redefines the intent, which leads people to wonder if maybe they ought to share only their choicest moments in life, which means all our casual connections, shares, and banter are best left ... where?

Best use. Whether for business or pleasure, it's still the best network connector out there today. So let's hope they don't blow it for the sake of Timeline.

2. Twitter. Twitter, which was the only social network that initially refused to be called a social network and still does, has been rolling out changes in big broad strokes. While not everyone has the new interface, those who do are struggling to get used to it.

Pros. The aesthetic is more pleasing at a glance because it reopens more of the background image, giving marketers more room for branding and contact information.

Cons. The new interface is counterintuitive, including where you compose a new tweet. Instead of above the feed, it forces you to move up to the top of the page or sweep left. It also places things you don't need to see (who to follow) directly in your field of vision. And ironically, things you do what to see (like a website link and mini bio) on a completely different page.

Outcome. It sucks. Every day I sign in to Twitter, I dread the day my account will suddenly look like one of the ones I manage. If it wasn't so heavily adopted, this change would convince me to leave it. Thank goodness for third-party interfaces.

Best use: While its ability has been hindered with marketing messages and link sharing, it manages to retain its status as a real-time communication tool. But it might not if it imposes a new layout.

3. Digg. Digg hasn't really known what to do with itself since it cut off its mutual sharing services (Digg me and I'll Digg you pacts) nose to spite its mutually spammy community (no one else was left) face just before it turned commercial. Recently, Digg was hoping to revive itself by encouraging people to share their Diggs on Facebook.

Pros. Other than showing how many tweets and likes something has (which is surprisingly inaccurate), you tell me.

Cons. Noted changes to Facebook aside, I don't think I could ever bring myself to share a link from Digg, which would require people to pass through Digg to get to what I am sharing. Some people do, but I don't get it.

Outcome. I want to like Digg, but Digg makes it hard to like Digg. The core problem is that it killed its sense of community and hasn't done anything to get it back.

Best use: It's a remnant news aggregator without enough topic categories, mostly used by people who want to share tabloid news, tech, science, and politics. Well, sort of.

4. Delicious. The bookmarking service that Google wanted to kill before fans pushed back has undergone big changes since it was sold. The initial changes were designed to make it more graphically oriented and better organized, which was a good call.

Pros. It does look better and is better organized. Even the "stacks" was a solid concept, which allows you to group similar posts together, regardless of how they are tagged.

Cons. Unfortunately, the network tied its front page content to popularity as opposed to freshness. As soon as it did, the front page started looking static and participants discovered less new content, with the exception of those gaming the system.

Outcome. At the current drop-off rate, Delicious won't be saved. It might even be dead by the end of the year, and I don't think anyone will care unless it gets fixed.

Best use. If you want to collect content and you want to send people to it, Delicious is a fine place to do it. Unfortunately, discovery trumps bookmarks and networks without people are useless.

5. For the last few weeks, I've been reading posts about written by people who claim to know social networks. They say that the bright and shiny object syndrome days are over because nobody is piling into the new They are wrong because isn't really new. It's a completely re-imagined Mixx and it has a foothold (but not with marketers).

Pros. Mixx needed to be remixed, and has done a great job at it. It's graphically smart, easy to navigate, and organized by a tagging system that allows you to follow tags or people. It also staffs visible human editors who share outstanding content.

Cons. It may never have mass appeal, preferring to serve a hard core notch. Sometimes that's better.

Outcome. There is definitely a renewed interest in, especially in the arts, which is where I spend most of my time there. It is hands down the best change of the bunch because the developers were clearly thinking about people first. Even better, there is no incentive to be the biggest "chimer" on the block.

Best use. It's one of the better organized topical playgrounds and feels intuitive to discover new things within a topic or people who share the same interests.

I probably could have included SlideShare and StumbleUpon too (especially because it took a few days to find a direct submit link button on StumbleUpon), but I'm still walking through what's really new. I also could have included a few that recently shuttered. Suffice to say no one really noticed (which is why they were shuttered.) Only one really surprised me. It's only flaw was it wasn't being marketed.

There are really four lessons here, and you've heard them before. When you start trying to be all things to all people (e.g., Facebook, Google+), eventually you could become nothing to everyone.
When you forget to keep people in mind and simply expect people to like whatever is on your mind, they tend to wander (Digg, Delicious). When you embrace change for the sake of change, it's never a good idea (Twitter). But when change has a purpose for the people you serve, it's almost always great (

And, most importantly, never think for a second you've figured out a social network. The moment you do, the entire site will be remade. And when that happens, all of your so-called assets will be gone.
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