Have you heard of Habbo, MyLife, Netlog, Orkut, QZone, Tagged, RenRen or Vkontakte? These and plenty of other social networking sites boast impressive numbers of registered users on each, and they are but a few of the high fliers that may have nevertheless slipped under your radar.
Social networking is – despite its paradigm shifting promise – a business proposition not unlike many others: it begins with an exponential market grab, representing the transition from fad to trend more than anything else. That stage is now passed, and is being replaced by the inevitable “backlash and absorption” period: For every Facebook, there are many Bahus, Mugshots, Pownces, Sixdegrees, Soundpedias, Yahoo360s, et al. The list of broken and dissolved social networking sites will grow as alarmingly as once did the numbers of people registering on some of those same sites. This list will be matched only by the accelerating roster of social media companies being purchased, absorbed, liquidated, and otherwise consumed by more robust and aggressive “co-opetition”. This happened in the automobile industry, in the banking industry, in the airline industry…and it will happen with this new socially impactful dynamic.
So all this was predictable enough, and shall come to pass (it has already begun). However, there is a 3rd – and less quantifiable – dynamic which is inexorably rising in influence, and could prove more impactful than any of the other aforementioned mitigating trend milestones: user burnout.
When new social networking sites cropped up over the past few years, many of us felt compelled to sign up with each and every one, for fear of finding ourselves on the wrong bandwagon, stranded at the starting point while everyone else rode thrillingly forward on the roller coaster of social media engagement. Today, it is not unusual for individuals to belong to 5 or more social networking sites, and consequently spend a large portion of their day managing their online presence. This investment of time is not matched by the reward, and the ROI (Return On Investment) must be at least balanced for an initiative to survive. While the social media brands will do their part in the coming months to raise their value proposition via conglomeration, acquisition, and improvement, this will not- in and of itself – suffice.
I predict (not sure you can predict something that is already manifesting itself, but there you go!) that the next 4 months will see a powerful degree of social network decline and realignment, as consumers and users begin to streamline their social presence online, and deactivate certain accounts, in favor of others. We have kicked the tires long enough, and the testing phase is over. Selections will be made, and loyalties cemented.
While Facebook has made several missteps along the way, I see most people sticking with that brand, so long as Messrs Zuckerberg et al don’t really screw things up: we sense there is a bigger, more long-term vision at play here, and are willing to stay on the ride, for the present.
With a little spring cleaning, and cross-platform functionality (the Blackberry app is very weak, and the TripIt app seems occasionally buggy, to name but a couple), this brand could prosper during this phase. It remains to be seen how the business model will integrate itself with potentially complementary offerings.
Can more than one address book aggregator survive? Is there a merger in the offing? Which will be the first to aggregate in the Cloud with full effectiveness? Will LinkedIn realize that it could – in fact – slip past these two in that offering, and become the default Cloud business address book, as well as online profile and professional group discussion environment?
There are way too many book and music social networks out there. Watch as the smaller ones either become absorbed into larger offerings (will Pandora and Slacker also move more aggressively in to the space and compete, or will partnerships such as the recent FB bridge suffice?), or carve out ever more specialist niches for themselves, like crabs scuttling out of reach of their predators..?
How many social networks can the movie-fan community support? With Hulu and others bound to upgrade their social media integration, I imagine this will be another area ripe for confluence.
With over 400 (at last count) social networking sites currently in operation, and a plethora in the offing, we have finally reached the point, I believe, where saturation has peaked and integration and selective pruning will ensue, manifest from all quarters. As I suggested above, brands will dissolve through neglect or lack of differentiation; others will be absorbed by stronger enterprises, for better or worse; and still others will find themselves deselected by their user base: the Dodo birds of Social Media.
After a period of fat trimming, including some new introductions that make sense (Social Media for the under 13 set is a challenging but attractive sector, so long as the privacy and protection issues are well-managed, and there are several compelling players coming out in the next month or two), social media will settle in to its next phase of existence: less intrusive yet more smoothly integrated into our daily lives. The novelty has worn off, and the value needs to clarify and communicate itself. More importantly, the value must find a way to unobtrusively integrate itself in to our daily lives, so that it becomes a tool in our quotidian existence, as opposed to a distraction.