One of the many April Fools joke postings yesterday involved a claim that Nielsen was abandoning “People Meters”, in favor of tracking audience viewing data via Facebook and Twitter posts. I fell for it long enough to think about the implications of such a move. April Fools Day, however, being the one day of the year that people critically evaluate news articles before accepting them as true, gave me pause. Once I cottoned on to the ruse, I was left with an abiding sense that an issue had been revisited that was far from resolved: Nielsen is obsolete as a tracking mechanism, and the various solutions they and their network clientele keep percolating are almost as useless as the systems currently in place.

The technology exists today to unobtrusively track actual viewing patterns and numbers, so why is Nielsen *still* extrapolating data points from subjective choice-oriented pools, such as Nilesen “diaries” and set-top boxes? Opting for social network-oriented insights would be just as subjective – even without taking in to consideration the fact that there is a drop off in usage of such apps as IntoNow, as people make a move toward reclaiming their privacy.

If IP is being patented to monetize ad-skipping, why not reward opt-ins for more granular tracking? One possible scenario: if viewers let DVR and live viewing data be recovered through hardware-embedded tracking tools, on an anonymous basis, they could get a certain number of credits. Increasing the demographic visibility of their viewership might increase their credits, and credits could be used toward ad skipping, network related bonus content, and so many other rewards. The possibilities are endless, and yet Nielsen et al prefer to look only as far as the end of their noses. The transparency of many social platforms is testament that consumers don’t mind sharing their habits, while the backlash against many misguided practices of some social endeavors (“Beacon” anyone?) demonstrates user commitment to managing their transparency, and not having it co-opted or monetized by third parties, without their consent. It’s not even about consent, in fact. It’s about collaboration. The consumer has begun to see that their life has value – monetary value – and they are willing to share that value, so long as the returns are worth the exposure. For some, it’s as simple as badges and upvotes, for others it’s perks and awards. If Nielsen gets smart, it will recognize this trend, and add a seat at the partnership table for the end-user, and audience tracking in the 21st century could become a much more accurate, rewarding, and dare I say enjoyable exercise for all involved.

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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.

Facebook
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.

LinkedIn
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.

Orkut/Plaxo
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?

iRead/GoodReads/Amie Street/Last.fm/ReverbNation/deviantART/Shelfari/Buzznet/ANobii/Librarything/etc…
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..?

Stickam/OneWorldTV/FilmAffinity/YouTube/imeem/Gather/Flickster/Auters/etc…
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.

Habbo (162,000,000 registered users), MyLife (51,000,000 registered users), Netlog (62,000,000 registered users), Orkut (100,000,000 registered users), QZone (200,000,000 registered users), Tagged (70,000,000 registered users), and Vkontakte (73,000,000 registered users).