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Summary:

Earlier this week, Om called social networks a feature. It’s a good point, though, one that seems all too obvious to someone like me who’s covered way too many social networks and often ends up bored before making it through yet another registration form. But one […]

Earlier this week, Om called social networks a feature. It’s a good point, though, one that seems all too obvious to someone like me who’s covered way too many social networks and often ends up bored before making it through yet another registration form.

But one thing I think he glosses over is a distinction between niche networks and social networks as a feature. Both are alternatives to the blank slate of MySpace and its wannabes. And both, especially the best ones, capitalize on communities that already exist — like people who love a certain videogame or parents that send their kids to the same daycare center.

There is a difference between setting up yet another ‘meeting place for pet owners,’ or a network for people who work-out, or a ‘MySpace for old folks’, and waiting for them to arrive, versus using social tools to connect people who already share a common interest or real-world relationship.

You could make even more of a distinction between social networks that help you do something or achieve a certain goal, like LinkedIn or Flickr, and networks that are just a social connection. Facebook also likes to consider itself a tool, putting it in the same category as LinkedIn, but making a site so functional may have the side effect of making it hard to monetize. LinkedIn and Xing, on the other hand, generate significant revenue from people who are used to paying for business expenses, though they’re both still hoping to gain better financial stability.

So here’s the beginnings of a taxonomy of social networks: blank slate (e.g. MySpace), target audience (e.g. any of the many SNs for mommies), existing interest (e.g. Flixster), existing community (e.g. local soccer league website), and purpose-driven tool (e.g. LinkedIn). Which of these could have the most opportunity?

Blank slates are pretty much over, though I would have said that before Bebo made its ascent.

Target audiences can reek too much of ad verticals. And once you start asking people to split their digital personas too much, you’re basically betting that they’re going to be willing to maintain multiple profiles on multiple networks.

Existing interests, I would say are a promising area, and existing communities as well. But this has to be extremely well-integrated into the activity — for instance last.fm participating silently in your music listening and there for you with up-to-the-minute stats whenever you’re there for it.

Everyone and their mother wants to build white-label social network to serve an existing interest or community these days, but most of the stuff I’ve tried using is pretty crappy. Marc Canter blogged about Om missing his contributor in the space, People Aggregator, as well as his competitors IBM, Five Across, KickApps, and CrowdFactory.

However, there’s clearly a market for these companies, even if it’s coming from Cisco (Cisco?!). As for a market for their products? Well, Yahoo Groups is clearly due for a dethroning.

As for social tools, these taxonomy categories are awfully close, and this could verge into my ideas of target audiences and interests a bit. However, there’s a difference between a place to hang out for X kind of people, and a place to get X done. Like I said above, social tools like LinkedIn and Facebook have had varying levels of financial success, but I have to think becoming an integral part of getting stuff done could be made into a business.

So 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 between the proliferating places to maintain your digital self is clearly due — and perhaps an opportunity for yet another kind of company.

By all means, feel free to chime in if you think I’ve got it wrong.

  1. You can tell my HTML skills suck. I was referring to VentBox.com

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  2. Uh oh…we are definitely risking getting too granular here! But I think you’re right, grouping people online for a specific activity is a bit of a different shade. Using my framework, I would say this best fits into the tool category — you use VentBox to get venting done.

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  3. “So can all these options coexist?”

    Not in my opinion.

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  4. Brandon Mills Friday, February 9, 2007

    Great point Liz, but one that views the social network ecosystem at a fixed point in time. My bet is that existing Blank Slates will have a leg up on all other categories assuming their ability to reorganize in structure to better reflect the way we network offline. For one example: the Google-powered internal search function of Myspace is all but useless, I’ve probably executed two dozen searches in the past month and never found a thing (or person) that I’m looking for. The same holds true for the other networks as well. I think the key is for these horribly horizontal networks to adopt a structure which allows people, information, etc. to fall into natural, seachable, scalable verticalized groups (think internal Target Audiences). The difficult part is doing this in a non-intrusive manner that does not disrupt the existing freedom of the ecosystems, and without a full-blown system architecture redesign. The implications of such structure for the ability for these sights to monetize this traffic could be monumental…

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  5. As we let people into the private beta at Me.dium, we’re having a lot of fun watching all the meta-communities forming “on top” of existing social networks (in the web2.0 sense and the real world sense). For example, I’m seeing a big swarm of Diggers going nuts right now in Me.dium as we’ve just let a couple hundred into the system… As people belong to many SNs, it’s cool that they can now hang out with all their buddies, across all their communities, in one meta-layer like Me.dium. Obviously, I’m biased. I work here :)

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  6. I like the distinction between target audiences and existing interests. The power of Social Networks is in allowing people to interact and these interactions are very different in these two categories.

    At nexo.com we allow families, sports teams, and other groups to get online and work together more easily. In this case users want to communicate with a known group of people rather than meeting new people online.

    As was mentioned earlier, social networking will be a key component of many offerings ranging from group sites to wikis and even blogging platforms. Users will come to expect the social networking features wherever they go.

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  7. Ahh, of course. I see how VentBox is a tool… duh!

    But it is interesting to note that activity oriented tools and work oriented tools are different.

    Like the difference between FORCE and a FULCRUM:

    For instance, LinkedIn or 8apps is work oriented, so it’s like a FORCE. It does work for you.

    VentBox or 43things is like a FULCRUM, where you push work through it.

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  8. Yes, Liz you have got it wrong!

    Blank slates are definitely not over as you correctly point out with Bebo and I am sure that you will see more. The key is in the execution and the answer is it is very hard to get the execution right. Maybe the point that you are making is the margin for error is getting increasingly smaller in this space. Maybe.

    I kinda agree with you on Target audiences.

    Existing Interests and Existing Communities. It really depends on the interest or community. They are not all created equally. Again though isn’t much room (if any) to get the execution wrong.

    Finally, we pre-released what you would call a blank slate yesterday. http://www.fatvine.com and http://www.customerforce.com only makes white-label, branded communities but the distinction is we focus on Social Search as opposed to Social Networking – because the margin of error is too small (haha).

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  9. Hi All:

    Just wading in here as a newbie poster, yet hardly new to scene…

    My firm, UnitedLayer, actually works with a number of these sites as a managed colocation facility – with that, we see one other choice that has not been represented here – the platform player.

    Your heretofore choices were all stand-alone communities, trying to carve out their place online as a destination…that is cool and all, and the verticalization/specialization is more, in my opinion, a natural evolution of the concept of social sites gaining wide market share and then fragmenting for one size does not truly fit all (think what happened to dating site and that fragmentation as an evolutionary step to the ubiquitous Match).

    With that, the “blank slates” are those sites that I look at more like gambling from a business model perspective – there is little to no allegiance on line, and the next, new, new thing can displace anyone – just look at the fragmentation caused by Tagged as they captured marketshare from MySpace recently.

    The one I think you are overlooking is the platform player – like Affinity Circles (yes a client of ours) or in a slightly different space, Granicus (video retention for govt meetings, think platform like YouTube but specialized).

    These are players now wadding in saying – there are only so many bells and whistles that these blank slates need, we’ll build it for you, and you go get the eyeballs…in a way what Yahoo webhosting did for website propagation.

    The platform players will allow anyone to build a social site, again I think just an evolution of the static website, that will further confuse the landscape, but will allow those with just the idea to join and play…

    RD

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