Everyone seems to be jumping on the social network bandwagon these days, and things are unlikely to slow down given Microsoft’s valuation of Facebook at $15 billion.
There is certainly what Gartner calls a hype cycle at play with social networks – not just in general, but with each of them individually. Friendster was the first social network to falter into oblivion, and MySpace’s growth has considerably slowed down.
I remember reading a post a long time ago that was comparing social networks to trendy bars and restaurants: the people motivated by exclusivity move on to a new spot as soon as the crowds start to show up in the current one.
Social network fatigue will grow in parallel with, if not faster than the number of solicitations. Like for email newsletters, there is a finite amount of user time and attention available. Each new network brings dilution and accelerates the path to saturation. In that regard, Google’s somewhat ballyhooed launch of OpenSocial is a timely announcement even if it does not address the core issue of proliferation.
Behind the generic term “social networks”, I feel that there is in fact a number of different approaches. Here is my take at a quick and dirty classification of social networks.
1) In the first category (“connection networks”) you can of course find the most popular names, from Myspace and Facebook to Hi5 and Orkut. At the core of those services there is a “connection engine” and initially the main activity of the users is to accumulate contacts. Sharing becomes most gratifying after they reach a certain threshold in terms of network size.
2) Services like Plaxo Pulse or AIM Pages are built on existing connections like email address books or IM buddy lists. They are mainly adding a content sharing layer to communication tools, and that is why I nickname them “communication networks”.
While these first two types are intentionally generic, the other types of social networks are focused on narrower purposes. I would call them “topic networks”, “demographic networks”, and “media networks”.
3) Social networks like last.fm, LinkedIn, Xbox Live, and sermo.com gather users around a specific interest topic – respectively music, business, gaming, and medical research. Sites like Bebo or MySpace still very much reflect their original focus on music, but they have become less specialized over time.
4) Any topic can be discussed on social networs like eons.com (for people past 50 years old) and cafemom.com but membership satisfies specific demographic criteria.
5) Social networks on sites like usatoday.com or ESPN Sports Nation aim at increasing audience engagement, and as such remain secondary to “journalistic” content.
I would love to hear other opinions and comments on this: would you classify social networks differently? Do you see other categories? Can you think of other examples?