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June 21, 2005
Five reasons social networking doesn't work
Five reasons social networking doesn't work
The word on the street lately is that social networking is in trouble. Friendster's CEO, Scott Sassa (most famous for firing a blogger who wrote about the company) recently departed in the face of a rapidly dwindling user base. Friendster has also introduced its own for-pay blogging tool as an all-too-ironic money-making scheme. Business networking site LinkedIn started charging for its job listings. Meanwhile, the recent launch of the Yahoo 360 beta has the blogosphere speculating that Friendster, the pioneer, is already on its deathbed. And Business 2.0 has a good article in this month's issue (subscription required) about how the indie music networking site MySpace is, for all intents and purposes, the only successful site, with more than $20 million in ad sales this year and plenty of long-staying subscribers.
Social networking is laboring under the inescapable weight of the dot-com curse: you have to find the money. No matter how cool your idea is, it's dead on arrival without an actual business plan. At least, that's the theory. If that's true, though, why has blogging, which seems like a neat idea dependent on interest but without a concrete revenue stream, managed to not just thrive, but really dominate the Web? How is it that free instant messengers are as indispensable as any search engine, and little guys like Trillian are still going strong? Is it really true that free services can't be effective business plans? Or is it possible that--gasp!--social networking isn't really that tenable an idea after all?
The social networking experience
I've gotten a lot of invitations to Friendster over the years, which, to be honest, I ignored. I always just assumed I didn't have time for that tomfoolery. Plus, I already had a boyfriend, and I already had friends. I know that all sounds horribly snobby, but there it is. But then, along came Orkut. Suddenly, because I was working in the Geek Zone, my coworkers were sending me Orkut invites. Every geek I knew was into it, and the peer pressure got too strong. I signed up. I filled out my little Orkut profile (I think I even uploaded a photo), and for about three weeks, my friends, coworkers, and I obsessively hung out on Orkut. And then, suddenly, we just got bored--weirdly, all at the same time. My entire Orkut generation, all the people who'd found it at the same time I did, just up and lost interest. Of course, round about that time, Orkut got painfully slow, and although it's better now (I just checked it out in the course of writing this column--hey, maybe I'll have a resurgence of interest!), it's still a heck of a lot easier to just e-mail or instant-message the people I know.
The five horsemen
Therein, I think, lies one of the five problems I've identified with social networking, and a good segue into my list.
1. There's nothing to do there
As Business 2.0 points out, a simple destination site won't cut it. My big beef with Friendster was always, "Well, what would I do there?" Visiting most social networking sites is akin to getting invited to a party where all the cool kids are going, then showing up and finding out there's no food, no drinks, no band, no games, no pool, nothing. Just a bunch of painful small talk and leering grins. The people-watching can hold your interest for only so long.
2. It takes too much time
Yes, I know I can choose where to devote my time, but Orkut, Friendster, and even LinkedIn (which I do find more useful than the purely social sites) are interesting but less information rich than news sites, blogs, Google news, or any of the other sites I could visit on the Web. It's interesting, for example, to blog about the experiences I had on a given day, but it's tedious to make sure my personal stats, favorite books, and current reading list are up-to-date. One of the reasons I think personal blogs win out over social networking is that they're inherently more personal, more inwardly focused, and a better chance to show more than a snapshot of yourself.
3. Traffic alone isn't enough
The reality of the new Web is that traffic alone just doesn't cut it. You can get all the visitors you want to your site, but you can't just blanket the thing with ads and hope to survive. Advertisers today are a more sophisticated bunch, and they're looking to send targeted, rich-content messages. That means that reliance on a generalized supply of banner ads is not a sustainable model, because no matter how much data you collect about your audience, if the audience isn't specific, the ads can't be, either. Witness MySpace's projected $20 million in ad sales. According to Business 2.0, it's working because MySpace attracts primarily what it refers to as "16- to 34-year-old hipsters." The Web is becoming an elitist sort of space. If social networking sites are a way to bring the masses together, advertisers are begging for a way to prune those masses into smaller, easier targets.
4. Strangers kind of suck (or, put nicely, the social hierarchy is really not that attractive)
Speaking of elitism, getting to know people is, frankly, a less attractive proposal than it first seems. Sure, business networking is valuable, and it's great to have a lot of resources who might know someone who can help you with...something. But that argument gets a little thin when you're suddenly bombarded with date offers or all-too-frequent postings about the unsavory or just plain uninteresting habits of the strangers you suddenly know. Moreover, social networking sites pretty quickly and inevitably degenerate into cliques. That's normal, it happens on the blogosphere, and it's not really even that deplorable. It's just kind of tiresome on a daily basis. If you restrict your friends list to only the people you already know, well, then the boredom sets in. Why would you read their profiles over and over when you can just IM them, e-mail them, or meet at the baseball game?
5. We already have the Internet
The only lasting argument about social networking that's ever made sense is that these networks are a valuable resource if you're adrift in the sea of online information. You can, in just a few hops, get to someone who knows someone or knows something that you need to know. That may be a valuable proposal in the business world, which gives a site like LinkedIn a better chance of survival than Friendster. But the argument's a little thin in a world where search is the king of the hill. If I need information online, I can find it. And I can probably find it faster using Google than I can by e-mailing one friend who'll e-mail another who'll e-mail another while my deadline slips away. Sure, it's helpful--once in a while. But once I have all these folks in my address book, I won't be much help in terms of ad impressions.
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