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Summary:

Social networks are now cropping up like mushrooms after a monsoon, most of them slight variations on the MySpace-Facebook model. Unfortunately that trend has pigeonholed the notion of social networks into a web-page paradigm, a virtual Rolodex that grows so big that it lacks context, and […]

Social networks are now cropping up like mushrooms after a monsoon, most of them slight variations on the MySpace-Facebook model. Unfortunately that trend has pigeonholed the notion of social networks into a web-page paradigm, a virtual Rolodex that grows so big that it lacks context, and hence relevance.

It is time to rethink the whole notion of social networking, and start thinking of it as a feature for other online activities. Already, we see companies like Affinity Circles and Social Platform turning the “social network” into a commodity, by offering turnkey solutions. That’s just the start. It is time to start thinking beyond the web-page paradigm, and think of social networking as part of a larger “experience,” one that starts to blend the best of online and offline worlds.

What got me thinking about this was a phone call from Mathieu Nouzareth, the chief executive office of a little known but fast-growing casual gaming company, Boonty.


He wanted to outline Cafe.com, a new service being launched by his Paris-based start-up. Unlike other casual game companies, Café.com is not looking to convert the gamers into upgrading and paying for a full-featured version of their games.

“The conversion ratio is pretty low, about 1 percent,” says Nouzareth. “Our model is basically free games, but you can add boosts to the game experience.” That is it wants to sell avatars and other such stuff to casual gamers for a few pennies. The model has worked for Habbo Hotel, and a bunch of other online virtual worlds. “Conversion is higher because the entry price is pretty low,” he says. “It is more attractive than a try-buy model.”

The more intriguing and perhaps interesting feature of Café.com is its social networking features. There are elements of presence management, chatting features, and by end of this year there will be voice added to the mix. You can create buddy lists and even build your own homepages. Nouzareth is hoping to build a close enough replica of an offline experience. He doesn’t call it a social network, but that’s what it really is.

Games, at least in the offline world, are a social experience. You visit friends for say a New Year’s Eve bash, and end up playing Monopoly. You talk, you scream, and if you are like me, you get serious enough in your bid to win. Of course you network, i.e. connect with others. Every time families get together, they socialize, they network, and sometimes they play games.

Beyond games, there are other offline activities that rely on social networks. Like watching television! Sure we are living increasingly private lives, but when there are major television events like the Super Bowl, or the World Cup of Cricket, we try and get together with our friends and family and enjoy them together.

A few years ago, when Sex and The City was all the rage, some of my lady friends would organize the “Sex In The City” parties, gathering together and shooing the boys out to the corner pub.

That social networking experience is what Joost aka the Venice Project is trying to mimic in its service. Watching television together online, chatting about it, and some day talking about what they are watching in real time. The best part is that you control your network, something I have argued for in the past.

The social networking is simply embedding itself into services, like say MOG or Last.fm. They are not social networks in the classic sense – aka like Bebo or Facebook or MySpace – but they essentially are social networks. They use the technology to enhance online experiences, which are the things we want to be doing. After all, life doesn’t happen, online or off, inside a MySpace page.

  1. Om, this sort of goes with the comment I just left on the previous article here on your blog.

    I was thinking that social networking could be the center of many new features… Rather than creating new social network niches, the existing networks should start thinking of innovative ways that people could access or use their social network.

    My example happened to be location-based networking that is done automatically through a phone’s GPS unit via some sort of Java-based software.

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  2. I think you are right, and this should not come as a surprise. after some point the long tail of niches just becomes that – the tail.

    LBS is another good example. I am thinking about more such features.

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  3. This is why I have been watching wireless based technology so closely. Once we reach a point where most people have ubiquitous access to the internet via their cellular phone or PDA, such services would really begin to flourish.

    As it stands now, standard mobile web-based services (browsing news articles, for example) are usually very cheap and very easy to access. If you want full run of the internet, it will cost around $30/month, depending on the carrier. The problem with full internet access is that 1) quite a few users don’t want to pay that fee, and 2) most users don’t even know that they have a mobile browser or internet access.

    Hopefully WiMax will help solve these problems by allowing universal access across all devices for one fee (i.e. $30/mo gives you high speed access on your notebook, cellular, PDA, etc.)

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  4. Jesse Kopelman Monday, February 5, 2007

    This leads to the question of whether what people want is a unified online identity (which in turn would eventually become integral to overall identity both on and offline) or separate functional identities. Clearly, it would be a huge boon for commerce if people want the unified identity (i.e. a whole new level of targeted marketing), but this would be a major paradigm shift for society. Just thinking about the fact that all the stupid usenet/blog posts I have made will probably be floating around in easily accessible archives forever is enough to give me chills. If social networking remains merely a feature of services that may come and go, things remain a lot simpler and the impact on both commerce and society as a whole is minimized.

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  5. Om,

    I think you’re on point with this – one of the challenges of being an analyst covering this space is helping clients understand that social networks are not just for teens or people looking to ‘hook up’ online. Instead there are a number of different business models out there and reasons for companies or organizations to consider social networks as an alternate means of sharing knowledge, understanding customers, creating contacts, on-going communication, creating content, etc. Then there is a more embedded version of social networking that you discuss as well. But, to this point its been the group/individuals that have been the draw to a social network — what can be next? Applications are certainly an option.

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  6. we’re doing this now with our p2p platform.

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  7. There’s a quote I once heard that went something like this…

    “I don’t want to be part of a social network. I want to be part of something useful that happens to be part of a social network.”

    That resonated with me.

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  8. People seem to jump from fad to fad. Right now MyBlogLog is the site for bloggers and Yahoo! recognizes the strength of the site, having finalized a purchase of it in January 2007.

    Likely, it will also fade as people realize that there is another new phenom out there.

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  9. Very timely article, prompted me to write about 5 of the main lessons we have experienced from social media here I have linked to this story in my post article

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  10. Yes – especially today’s entrants. Tools seem like a better bus model than slugging it out at the community building level.

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  11. I think the distinction lies in the community that is being served.

    Social networking can be the main focus if there truly is offline face-to-face interaction. The social network simply bridges the offline to the online as a communication tool in that case. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many real life communities that can exploit this (the college campus is probably the most ideal)

    But if the community is not centered around face-to-face activity, the social network should really be a side feature and not the main focus. Flickr and YouTube do this already… games and TV shows (and even Ebay) are also good candidates. In these cases, the social networks serve more as self-expression tools to enhance and facilitate the main event. They are NOT communication tools like those for offline communities…

    The question I always ask myself whenever I see “Myspace for ” is: what does a social network for this affinity offer that a simple forum or message board can’t?

    Forum software can easily become a social network. When that happens, the social network really needs to take a backseat as a secondary side-feature.

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  12. This will end up being another “what is web2.0″ debate–of those things very sexy to debate about but at the end of the day, very petty in itself.

    A question such as this this sounds more like an academic debate than anything actually related to the social networking market. What does matter is like all space, there will be social networks of VARIED VALUE and that’s really what matters to the folks running it and to the folks interested in leveraging it.

    -Zaid

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  13. Sameer Shisodia Monday, February 5, 2007

    Oh-so-totally. Have long held that some of the yahoogroups are the strongest social n/ws – in terms of the value of the network and the thematic content and conversations around them. Both in terms of usefulness and monetizability a soc network as a tool to solve other problems – esp those that real life networks around you solve anyhow, are the sustainable way to go.

    At Zook, we’re readying a leisure-oriented mobile service which, while it has search at its core, seeks to let people find the natural way (at least in India, where every guy on the Street is Google, and you mine the peple you know more than the web – and the net is a rather stale snapshot for information). The soc n/w part of it is more a very useful feature than an end in itself.

    Its not yet in beta, though we’re letting people find Bangalore restaurants on it (and go ahead and reserve tables, get calls back for delivery orders). Its releasing soon.

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  14. Yeah i’m relieved Flickr has remained a smaller tighter more intimate place to hang out with all yer Friendz!

    Cheers! Billy ;))

    Music would be a welcome addition tho!!

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  15. I would agree with most of your comments, and I’d say that yes the next thing would be a combination of social networking from online to offline and vice versa.

    These are certainly features I would like to have in my own social networking website, Fannect.com which I’ve just launched two days ago.

    Currently it’s one of those mushrooms, as you mentioned Om, but hopefully it would manage to spread it’s spores throughout the world! ;-)

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  16. The ideal social network must revolve around people getting benefits other than simply connecting with one another. Conquently, for it to be sustainable it must help users to promote and share things of interest within a real life community.

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  17. Hi Om,

    You might be interested in Marc Canter’s follow-up post, and my reply to that. There are a number of white label social networking solutions out there that can potentially be opened up and added to existing software to provide social networking as a feature rather than a means to an end in itself.

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  18. Om,

    You are right. This is the way we see it at Ziki. People join to promote their content on major search engines. Once our base grows social networking becomes an underlying feature because people realize that they naturally benefit from it. Our role is to be sure that they have all the tools they need to strongly leverage their involvement within the community.

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  19. At the beginning of this year, the fourth of my five predictions for 2007 was that social networks become a feature (click on my name in this comment to read all five and my reasoning). Just as people don’t talk about “message board” companies, so they won’t talk about “social networking” companies in the future. However, I came at this from a slightly different direction.

    The first generation of social networks (Myspace, Facebook etc) are very communication centric, which is what drives the huge pageview/UU/mth numbers. As you point out, the opportunity to build more of these gets more limited over time, just as the opportunity to build a huge new free email site has become limited. But the newer generation of sites use social networking principles to incent a core group of power users to create content that can be used by many people, who may be completely unaware that there is even a social network at the site at all. Yelp is probably the canonical example, although arguably tripadvisor has been doing this for ages. Others include Flixster (a portfolio company), Dogster etc.

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  20. I agree with this – we designed our new site http://www.decornextdoor.com not as a social community primarily, but as a place for a specific experience – the giving and getting of interior design advice from decorators and the public. We felt that the social aspects would soon be a commodity, so although the elements are there – group tagging, rating, and so forth – they are not required for the experience to be valuable. This will probably be the trend going forward.

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  21. We have currently done this with our newest project, ADflakes. We have added social networking features to Classified Ads Listings. It seems to be effective as shown by our initial project Sulit Community at http://www.sulit.com.ph

    So our goal is to create a community centered on a particular niche. I think we should leave mainstream social networking to the big guys :P

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  22. Great article Om
    I have a different take that its the portals who need to step up and kill the proliferation of these networks since it is there that we already spend our time and benefit from the internet anyway let me know what you think

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  23. I have nothing intelligent to add to this conversation, but saying the name of that Web site “Boonty” aloud makes me laugh, and just a little embarrased.

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  24. Great post!

    I recently got a Nintendo Wii, I love it for so many reasons, but they’ve got built-in social features I naturally want to use that connect me to my 2 other friends who also recently bought Wii’s. It’s not like I think I’m going to fire up my Wii and do some social networking, but it DOES make gameplay more personal (and thus more fun) when I can see avatars of my real world friends (called Mii’s) milling about in my own game system. They even resemble them! And, when they came over to play doubles tennis in my living room last Friday, they brought their Mii’s with them, saved onto their Wii controllers. It just seemed natural, the device brought us together, and together we were social both inside and outside of the game. Social networking isn’t a site anymore, it’s a part of a generational habit related to how people want to interact with their media.

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  25. most people who own internet businesses, i think, have learned this by now. we knew all along that it’d be more of a feature versus stand alone on its own – it’s why you’re starting to see some social networking platforms start things like editorial, etc. to make people stickier on their site.

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  26. Well in terms of TV Social Networking take a look at http://www.freetube.us.tc which seems to be bridging that gap between video and social networking – as funny as it seems, it seems there are actually people who want to watch tv and then talk about it at the same time.

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  27. While sites like MySpace will continue to welcome all-comers to an increasing unwieldy world of possible relationships, enduring social networks are more likely to evolve at the “neighborhood” level where, for example, you can choose those topics and people based on your specific needs.

    We’ve found this to be true at Zolved.com, where the urgent need for consumers to find a “friend in technical support” to solve a problem with their iPod or other digital devil is quickly growing into an organic network of technophiles gladly helping technophobes — all built upon a self-help content framework we’ve created. Using free remote control technology, we’ve even empowered our community of visitors to literally connect to another user’s PC to resolve a technical problem.

    The best kind of social networking has a practical side for the Zolved.com community.

    Paraphrasing McLuhan, “The medium is the messaging.” Pick your subject. Pick your new friends. Communicate. Collaborate. Know and grow.

    Ratan Tipirneni
    Founder and CEO
    Zolved.com

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  28. I have just written about this at the idiomag blog. Yes, I think social networking has become a feature – but a very important feature within other services. When supporting the delivery of other services (eg finding business contacts = linkedin, or finding newmusic that you like = last.fm/pandora), networking becomes powerful and essential – and monetisable.

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  29. You mention the idea of blending the best of online and offline in a social network, and I believe you are familiar with MingleNow, which aims to do just that. Just like video gaming at Cafe.com and the Sex and the City viewing parties, bar- and club-hopping is an undeniable aspect of offline socializing, at least for the 21+ crowd. MingleNow bridges the gap between making and communicating with friends online and going out on the town in real life, letting you find out online where your friends are going to be on a particular night, and then hooking up with them offline. I think it answers the question of whether or not you can build true communities online. That group of friends hanging out in their favorite bar or club is as real as life gets, and a social networking site being the reason that event was planned at all, is a possibility that becomes more and more real every day.

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  30. I think your question is very relevent. Social networks and especially social bookmarking can be can be regarded as a feature of web search. Google was very successful because its the first search engine that introduced the number of web site linking to each web site to rank them. This was one the first aspect of the Social networks. My web site http://www.annawwar.com/scuttle was launched in this optic.

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  31. To restate the title of this article I would say that “Social networking websites contain many useful features that should be used by businesses and communities to enhance two-way communication”.
    The development of social network platforms and other useful widgets is amazing in my opinion (and I’m a developer). Programming useful things has been way too difficult for far too long.
    To give you some practical reasons why these social networking features are useful, I am a musician and am moving from simply posting my songs online, to allowing people to comment, rate the songs, vote, stream/download songs, recommend to friends, digg, delicious, etc. This is building connections with my ‘fans’ and is extremely valuable and takes advantage of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ for providing feedback, ideas for songs, etc.

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  32. [...] term ‘white label’ has come from). It’s somewhat relevant as Om Malik has now asked a rhetorical question if Social Network tools are just a feature of website. Overtime, like blogs, these will [...]

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  33. [...] analogy is apropos, for there are some of us who believe that the social networks are getting rapidly commoditized, and becoming what amounts to being a feature. That is not necessarily a bad thing – since it [...]

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  34. Identity Matters Because Social Networks are Features…

    To start a social network today you need only flip the switch. Ning, KickApps, Pligg, GoingOn, are all players in the ever growing space of social network providers. I see the rapid commodification of social networks having two major impacts:

    Social…

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  35. [...] has a post said that social networks has become a feature not separate services. What’s your view on [...]

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  36. [...] zoek naar discussies over het online social network gebeuren. Daar kwam ik deze link tegen. Hier wordt de vraag gestelt of online social networking wel iets losstaand is of juist meer [...]

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  37. [...] Are Social Networks just a feature? Social networking as we think of it today is just the start, says GigaOM. It is time to start thinking beyond the web-page paradigm, and regard social networking as part of a larger “experience,” one that starts to blend the best of online and offline worlds.    [...]

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  38. [...] is a general, almost philosophical problem conceptualized by tech blogger Om Malik in his post Are Social Networks Just a Feature? arguing that “it is time to rethink the whole notion of social networking, and start thinking [...]

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  39. [...] to some mainstream news sites that would decrease the value of conveying personal experiences.) If social networking is a just a common feature, video sharing option should be a default feature for news sites for their own benefits (maybe for [...]

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  40. [...] Nevermind them, for casual gaming is still the playground of start-ups. We have written about Boonty’s Cafe.com and Kongregate in the past. And now three-year-old casual gaming company, King.com is getting its [...]

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  41. [...] bigger than other competitors. I am seeing social networking site to be something even further than GigaOm’s thoughts. We might be seeing elements conferences, element entrepreneurs, and even element centric blogs. If [...]

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  42. [...] to content, and this acquisition is part of the strategy. Of course, this reinforces my thesis that social networking is a feature for other media services, unless you are a big kahuna like Facebook or MySpace. Share This | [...]

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  43. Sites like cafe.com and http://www.doof.com which are Online Gaming Social Networks, offer users to play within a community, which could be fun. Otherwise online games tend to make players aloof. As they say – Man is a social animal.

    True,these days you have online social network for every field. But a successful network will be one that will have simplicity at its core, while enhancing the user experience and interaction.
    We at doof.com(private beta) hope to provide our users with same.

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  44. [...] where that term ‘white label’ has come from). It’s somewhat relevant as Om Malik has now asked a rhetorical question if Social Network tools are just a feature of website. Overtime, like blogs, these will [...]

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  45. [...] matter which one you use – they become interchangable and don’t have any clout. Om Malik has mentioned that social networks in general are just commodities. So when platforms become commodities and everyone has them the space could start getting [...]

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  46. [...] whilst I am on this subject you may enjoy this article on social networks. Rather like forums I love the concept of them but to many times fine that I [...]

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  47. [...] spun up around privacy, network portability, and the sheer number of similar experiences available. Are Social Networks Just a Feature? – GigOm The Chess game of social networking – Marc Canter All your widgets are belong to Facebook [...]

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  48. [...] a Commodity I’m surprised to hear Marc Canter say this, just a few months ago he violently opposed others saying that it was a feature, and now he suggest that these social features are a commodity. Either way, the scope of this very [...]

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  49. [...] when he started talking about how social networks will become a feature of many web apps; it took me a lot longer to figure that one out. He is being similarly astute in his 2008 [...]

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  50. [...] Stacey Higginbotham, Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 11:15 AM PT Comments (0) There go the social networking neighborhoods! Google, Yahoo and MySpace are taking a page from the Mozilla Foundation by creating a nonprofit foundation to control and maintain the OpenSocial code, which allows developers to build applications that work on a variety of social networks. The core companies will still contribute to the code, but as of July 1, it will become a community effort. This move legitimizes the idea of a social network as a platform, as it offers the ability to develop for a variety of social networks in one go; it also signals that social networks are becoming a commodity. [...]

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  51. [...] some have guessed, social networking is becoming "a feature, not a destination," so we’re only [...]

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  52. [...] something evermoving about Internet social networks and the way we use them. Om Malik said awhile ago that social networks should be an addition of some upper-level activity not destination in itself. We see that to be true in many ways. A lot of businesses realize that [...]

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  53. [...] Andere gehen noch weiter und bezeichnen Social Networks vielmehr als Zusatz welcher schnell öde und uninteressant wird. Interessante Meinungen dazu gibt es auf bjornlee.wordpress.com und gigaom.com: [...]

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  54. [...] Yahoo, most companies have had a mixed scorecard. What’s more, rather than a service unto itself, social networking is becoming just another feature on many web [...]

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  55. I think the surge in social networks will reside given the fact that most depend on click through ads for funding. This will be a major issue for them as users are becoming more and more “blind” to PPC ads. The only way they can survive long term is to charge for their services. Or develop top-notch ad campaigns with major businesses as apposed to low-key click client ads.

    DevManiac,
    Social Network Graphics Management

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  56. [...] soon which will make our job easier in finding the right thing to use. There was a great quote from Om Malik in Feb 2007 that said “It is time to start thinking beyond the web-page paradigm, and think of social [...]

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  57. [...] guess Gigaom was right after all – Social Network is just a feature (http://gigaom.com/2007/02/05/are-social-networks-just-a-feature/) Share and [...]

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  58. I’ve a notion that good socail network must help users to promote an share things of interest within a real life community. This remains the first priority.

    Greets from Germany

    Manuela Sieber
    Webdesign Rosenheim

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  59. [...] GigaOM » Are Social Networks Just a Feature? "It is time to rethink the whole notion of social networking, and start thinking of it as a [...]

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  60. [...] Social Networks “Just a Feature” By macqueen Great post by Om Malik at GigaOM: Are Social Networks Just a Feature? on the changing evolution from “sea of humanity” social networking destination sites [...]

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  61. [...] after nearly two years of us saying so, social is now simply part of the web-fabric. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recognized that and [...]

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  62. [...] can all these options coexist? One of the commenters on Om’s post brings up the very valid point of identity management. Some form of integration [...]

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  63. [...] three years ago, I wrote that social networking was nothing more than a feature: The social networking is simply embedding itself into services, [...]

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  64. [...] iTunes store – aka its shopping experience — is through the use of social. Back in 2007, I argued that social networking was merely a feature that had to be embedded into applications to en…. Apple has done a great job of that. But it has gone one step further – it has not only added a [...]

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