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Summary:

As regular readers of GigaOM know, I have written often about social networks as a platform for self-expression, and how such new media shifts the balance of control for production and distribution of content between corporations and consumers. Along with this, I’ve written about the many […]

As regular readers of GigaOM know, I have written often about social networks as a platform for self-expression, and how such new media shifts the balance of control for production and distribution of content between corporations and consumers. Along with this, I’ve written about the many strategic implications of such shifts, particularly for traditional media companies, and the business model challenges that face any player attempting to monetize social media. There is another critical aspect of social networking, however, that I have not yet addressed… and it’s one that will serve as the anchor component for social networks as they begin to enter their next stage of evolutionary development. The component I’m referring to is the communications layer embedded within social networks.


One of MySpace’s greatest innovations was something ridiculously simple… the “wall”. As most know, the wall is the messaging area of a user’s profile page, where any “friend” of the user can post comments. I describe it as “ridiculously simple” because the wall is nothing more than a common bulletin board. However, the foresight to repurpose a simple bulletin board to enable communications among a social network of people, all centered on the profiled individual him/herself, proved to be brilliant. More than any other utility for self-expression, it is the wall that keeps members coming back over and over again, often several times a day (to check for new messages). In short, the wall is to social networks what free email proved to be for portals. It is the wall that will also prove to be the most extensible component of MySpace into the future.

The value of the wall points to a very important dimension of building and running any web property that’s driven by community… that communications ultimately serves as the anchor feature and the driver of retention and growth. This need for an anchor reminds me of what I used to call “the health club” phenomenon when I was an executive at a consumer online service. When newbies join a health club, they start off full of vim and vigor… trying out all the different exercises and workout machines. But eventually, as time passes, they get tired, lazy, or just simply lose the initial excitement, and they either churn out (quit the health club) or lock onto one or two exercise routines. In similar fashion, when dealing with an online community, that one lasting activity is almost always communications.

But it is equally important to realize that communications in and of itself, especially if it’s a new form of communications like the wall, does not necessarily act as the primary draw for new users. For instance, going back to the days of consumer online services, email was not a very effective draw to acquire new users. This was mainly due to the fact that most people had no idea what email was and how useful it could be. So other benefits were emphasized, like unique content, to acquire new users. Yet once users discovered the benefits of email, it became the common ubiquitous activity among the community. As a result, it’s critical to understand that what attracts people initially is often not what keeps people on your network interested and vested in the long run… a dynamic that is a critical guide for strategic planning.

So given the importance of communications as the extensible anchor component for the future of social networks, I’ll end this by providing an example of the type of enhancement that I believe would work… one that should be obvious. MySpace, for instance, should offer its members the ability to communicate on the wall via video. So imagine friends in your social network leaving messages on your wall, but instead of just text and pictures, they post a video clip (yes, I know you can already post video clips as messages, but it’s not what I would consider an integrated video communications platform). Doing so will accomplish several strategic objectives.

First, enabling video communication will enhance novelty, thereby driving a new demand curve of stickiness. Secondly, since video messages can be counted as “user-generated” video content, the traffic and volume of video messages should spike, thus providing MySpace with an added source of video production & consumption that could easily surpass YouTube’s traffic count. Lastly, this is the kind of functionality that would be ideal for mobile phone extension. Imagine kids using their video mobile phones to upload and download video messages… it’s something that could easily become the next cool thing and ubiquitous.

As the web portals of the last generation learned, communications anchors their traffic… Yahoo! would be a shadow of itself were it not for free email, IM, etc. Social networks, which are rapidly becoming the portals of the next generation, must place high strategic priority on their communications functionality if they wish to continue their pace of traffic growth, usage, and retention.

  1. The Dallas Morning News had a very interesting article today on students who were abandoning MySpace and the social networking scene. They were getting tired of spending their lives in impersonal circles of acquaintances and wanted to get on with a real life and pursue real relationships.

    As a single, I have used dating services before and I can relate to the experience. After a while, one gets tired of the mental exercise and longs for a real environment for building relationships. Ater hours and days of virtual communication with people who you really don’t know, you find that you have no real interest in these acquaintances and discover it was mainly a virtual high that plays to your senses, something most people enjoy until they don’t find fulfillment.

    My prediction… social networking will be a passing fad and will stick with only the empty crowd of people filled with nothing better to do in life.

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  2. Yes, good example of that is the millions that were wasted on “Wallop” — who still hasn’t sent me my invite. Waste of MS money, but MS has tons of it to burn.

    Rex

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  3. myspace a social life does not make. but that does not make social networking a fad.

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  4. My daughter, 17, lives on MySpace — when she happens to be home. The friends with whom she communicates are all friends in her real (protein) life. MySpace simply extends her ability to stay connected when she and her friends aren’t in the same place. The black and white line between an online social network and “a life” exists only if you let it. For most, like my daughter, I suspect the line is much more grey.

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  5. Yes, Robert, you have nailed it down — social networks have been, and are, mainly about communication and collaboration/collaboration…

    But you didn’t bring up mobile.

    Mobile is and will always be first and most about communication, and thus collaboration. This is why mobility and handsets fits so well within the overall social computing – by its own nature, it is about enhancing the way we communicate and share with others, it is a social apparatus…

    The next big thing in mobility, the true definition of Mobility 2.0, is unification of mobility+multimedia+communication…

    Thanks,
    ceo

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  6. Social networks like MySpace are useless beyond putting up vanity sites for individuals. They have completely missed the point of creating community whether it be via videos or message boards.

    Every social network I’ve seen is just a rehash of the same old thing. The only psuedo social network I’ve found compelling and done anything innovative is Fanpop. Those guys actually create real communities of fans around topics of interests and make social networks USEFUL and harnesses the power of collective intelligence rather than wasting it on a bunch of ugly profile pages that light up and blast music. I’ve been using Fanpop since it launched in August (found it via Techcrunch) and I’m addicted. Could be a lot more interesting with more users though because it’s so new:

    http://www.fanpop.com

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  7. I don’t think integrated video in comments would stick at all. Myspace users like using the “wall” for the single reason that you spent your entire post explaining – simplicity in communication. Casual, quick, and simple – users view wall comments as social collateral. Any comment attempt that appears contrived or looks like it took more than 2 minutes to post disrupts the culture of quick communication.

    The novelty argument is sound… they’ll tinker with it, use it for special occasions, and go back to mundane text commenting (ala your analogy of the gym). But the stickiness and regular usage of video commenting doesn’t fly…

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  8. Hi Mr. Young,
    Definetely agreed that social networks should include further communication options on their websites. A Facebook-Skype partnership would be a smart move for Facebook since many of their users communicate with each other on a daily basis over the phone, in person, or wishing that they had talked more frequently.

    As far as leaving video responses on walls, the current problem that seems to be difficult to resolve is the amount of effort required to produce a video. First is the creative aspect of knowing what to film, then there’s the editing of it using software, finally the uploading and then posting the code to the website. Once there is a way to by-pass that many steps, then I really think video would take off. For example a social network that just says “record from webcam” and then does all the back-end work for you and puts the video on the social network instantly… A social network with such a service would be groundbreaking.

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  9. I am not sure it is accurate to credit MySpace with innovating the “wall”.

    Is the “wall” that different from the home page guestbooks of 1996?

    Perhaps more correct to say the social network brought back into vogue the Web 0.9 guestbook.

    Similarly, could say WordPress, Typepad, et al. brought back into vogue the home page, recast as a “blog”, and with better producer and consumer tools.

    There is some other catalyst here; some other set of people and circumstances that renews the importance of pre-existing technologies and concepts, making them viral.

    Hidden frames were used to effect asynchronous communications between web pages and servers for years, but it took Google Maps to make AJAX and Web 2.0 nearly household words.

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  10. my heart skipped a few beats. about 6 weeks ago on august 30 we gave birth internally to a similar hypothesis, with a twist that will take it even further (or so we hope). development has begun outside of our current arena, but will be integrated as we hit alpha. stay tuned for “Pitchbox”!

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