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The Future of Social Networks – Communication

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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.

39 Responses to “The Future of Social Networks – Communication”

  1. This page itself, resembles the “wall” to me. So there is “Robert” writing his thoughts and then there are others who respond to it. Some a re genuine and some are ads dressed as writings on the wall. And there is this lane where some of the popular wall are up so people happen to wander by it every now and then.

    I my self realized this yesterday when researching the social network space. What is different about the MySpace Wall is it is more expressive. Users have the option of using text/voice/images/video and so the younger crowd find this more natural to adopt. I am not sure of the user segments in MySpace vs facebook, but I feel that users may start young with more expressive and open mediums like MySpace and over age move on to other forums like FaceBook/LinkedIn etc.

    The user and a person with interests generally changing with age/demography/social changes has to be considered to understand adoption .

    Like any other wave, there will be players that are here to stay and more that will fade away.

    But as existing users may opt out there is the new generation of users that will start joining and participating in groups . Like a moving window.


  2. The recent move by Microsfot and the release of Business 3.0 on Facebook will change the rules of the game.

    Social networks are ripe ground for businesses to directly market and sell their products and services to people and other businesses. While many may say that is already true today the difference is enabling businesses to have a direct vs. indirect presence within networks.

    To enable businesses to connect with other businesses and to have their presence seen directly rather than only through people in a network that just happen to work for a particular business.

    Enabling businesses to have and manage their own profiles within networks and to exchange goods and services may in fact be the process that further ignites the medium to be more than a “social network”. Many business spend thousands of dollars to attend and have a presence at trade shows and conventions throughout any given year. Social networks represent a medium for a 24/7 trade show at a fraction of the cost of “physical trade shows and conventions”.

    Footnote: Since launching 48 hours ago Business 3.0 has over 400 Business registering their profiles and learning how to use the application. In addition the Business 3.0 application is now able to integrate with your personal profile, see my profile on Facebook.

    Just think about the possibilities.

  3. Agree! Video enabled communication IS the Future! But, more important with the communication and it’s uses.

    One of the aspects is social networks can facilitate communication at the business level eg Terrys Business Network and not just in MySpace aimed at the younger generation.


  4. YES! Video enabled communication IS the Future!
    And it is already HERE… I already post video comments on myspace and I send video emails, I also can broadcast live from laptop anywhere in the world with 2 clicks of my mouse.
    VMdirect has a product called hellowWorld – Their new veriosn 5.0 just rolled out last month but it will be a Social Network where you can record media (video and audio) and store it and share it with others. They have made video communication so easy it’s incredible – below is everything they offer, along with the website – I have sent you a video email as well!

    E-mail – video & text with some amazing features
    Instant messenger – Video & Text
    Live Web Casting
    Store all of your Music, Photos and videos

    ALL IN ONE PLACE! And it’s all web based all you need is a webcam.

    I also agree with you that video is where we are heading because if you notice all of the new lap tops have cameras built in them already!

  5. Hey my name is Stephanie and I am writing a blog on social networks for my Audience Reserach class and I came upon this post. I agree with several of your points, especially that social networks is the new fashion trend of communicating, if its via web cam sites or even through myspace, but it is clear that many of these sites still have problems with privacy or sponsorship. How do you suggest that they fix these problems? In my blog, I mention, not in great detail as you, some problems that each social networks have, such as facebook or livejournal. It would be great if you could post a soultion on to my blog about the problems.

  6. not sure if anyone happened to check out the Google Groups Beta, but it lets you do all sorts of cool things. You get ‘a wall’ of sorts (a bulletin board), you get to create WYSIWYG web pages within the group, upload files, adjust permissions, but the kicker is that you get your own personalized email list. This is huge. So you can just send email to ‘[email protected]’ and it shows up on ‘the wall’. (You can post using the web interface, too, of course.) You can choose from 8 or so pre-set skin color schemes and adjust those colors. You can position the order of how things appear on your group’s ‘home page’ if not fully drag-and-drop them. You can upload an icon image. Your group can be completely private and not listed in the google groups directory, or just the opposite. you can send out invites and all that. you can use an external list provider.

    lots of nifty stuff. i can imagine future integration with all sorts of stuff that will put a dent in evite and others. integration with google docs. integration with google calendar, gmail, maps, etc.

    the biggest thing for me, though, is mailing list integration. how huge is that for small businesses and such? i’m guessing i could soon use the Google Data API to create a new mailing list for each new small group that is created on my social networking-type website. this functionality is, in fact, what i’ve needed for months, now ( ), but haven’t yet implemented b/c of the potential effort required. now, i just need to learn the Google Data API and get busy. this is a big deal. before, I might have to send out 300 emails to my users – now i can send out one message to my new google group ([email protected]), and i’m done. i and then of thousands of other folks are on shared hosting providers where we start getting charged for over ‘x’ number of emails sent. google groups could help alleviate our cost concerns. not to mention, we’d have some spam protection, less configuration, etc.

    i imagine a place like would have groups of users organized around any number of different things – one of them, perhaps, being the dog park they frequent most. what if Dogster could programmatically create a new group/email list on the fly whenever someone registered a new dog park? interested users join the group – all through the Dogster interface, of course, and they’re automatically in the loop.

    i guess it’s not a pure email list, but it just seems like there are a lot of things you can do with the group. maybe it’s not even so completely different than the previous versions of ‘groups’ – be they Google or Yahoo or whatever – but the new UI made me want to give it another look, and sure enough, after a couple of days of bug fixing, things are looking up.

    oh yeah, you can, of course, fill-out your own profile with avatar and contact info and all that. so, it’s kind of like PeopleAggregator, but at least Google has shown that they will not hand over your data to Uncle Sam without at least a minimal court fight – unlike People Aggregator’s stated intentions.

    also, it keeps revisions of your WYSIWYG web pages (a la wiki), one-click to revert to a previous version, and you can ‘discuss’ each page (a la wiki).

    all in all – it seems pretty slick.

  7. Hi Robert
    Interesting article ..

    I am addressing the same problem(communications and social interaction) from another angle in my blog

    The mathematics of Web 2.0: Why don’t ALL social networking sites experience phenomenal growth?

    The problem I am addressing is: Social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube are growing at rates faster than the growth of the Internet itself – but not ALL social networking sites(for instance ecademy, Ryze and linkedin) are showing very high rates of growth. Why is that?

    I found your article interesting kind rgds Ajit

  8. Ok, what is The Next after Web 2.0 ?

    If Web 2.0 is syndicating, sharing and taking the internet to its elementary pieces, then the Next is applying activates between the elements of Web 2.0.

    If Content in Web 2.0 is an elementary piece, then the Next elementary piece is the relations per se, which are combined in the content, between such contents and which are linked by/via/to it.

    Imagine peers having their private “knowledge base” on each of their machines. Imagine each of the peers employs each other’s machines, but contrary to grid computing or distributed computing, they do so in short pulses and in a developed reaction, in which each of the peers forms and not only performs the tasks, while earning and ranking the trust of the others.

    If sharing in Web 2.0 is exercised by delivery of contents, then another scale of processing the information is opened up for such communities.

  9. Nice article IMO, Robert, and I agree with your basic premise. However, I think most of the discussion/comments here still focus too narrowly on “what can be accomplished on the web.” Posting video, frankly, is just another minor feature.

    When you consider that there are over 200 million mobile phones out there, it begins to seem ridiculous that we haven’t ported those phones to our websites, our profiles, and our blogs, and enabled our phones to be communications vehicles that are fully integrated with our online personas and activities.

    That’s part of Jangl’s vision (yes, I work there). One might take a passing glance at Jangl and deduce that the whole play is “anonymous two-way phone numbers” — but if that’s the case, than I’d humbly submit that one is thinking too much in terms of technology and not enough about how our kind of service can reshape not just the phone experience, but the online — and ultimately, social — experience, as well.


  10. I agree with Enrique Ortiz. Mobility is the next big thing where the Social networking world will roll over and some of it is already happening. Mobile 2.0 (I think that is the new term today in the industry) is the where business and even basic elemental issues of life can be dealt with. A lot of products and infrastructure vendors will be adopting it, if they have not already started doing so. Mobile identity and business based on them will get bigger and bigger. Some (yours truely included) is already working on the heavy lifting.
    Watch out. You don’t wanna miss it

    [email protected]

  11. How about this…an interest and a place and all the best informatiion on one page. Help us do this…

    Web Site Created To Connect Communities
    (NAPSI)-There’s good news for Internet users who find searching for information about their interests can be time consuming and frustrating.
    A free search engine and interactive Web site has been created. Its purpose is to connect people with their local and interest-based communities and provide only the most relevant search results based on a user’s search parameters.
    Called, the site collects timely news feeds and provides a forum for posting classified ads, jobs, calendars, real estate listings and user comments about specific areas of interest-at no charge and on a single Web page. The site is said to organize and display timely information by city or zip code, free of pop-ups and other commercial distractions.
    According to the site’s manager, Dave Collins, it’s a place where people can easily and efficiently find and post all sorts of useful information about a specific topic, either locally or nationally.
    To learn more, visit the Web site at
    A new Web site is said to offer a snapshot of timely information about your community-with the click of a mouse.

  12. user generated mobile content is already popular in Europe. Consumers are able to download and upload their own images and videos that can be shared and even sold to friends, families or strangers. The limitations of the user experience is outweighed by the chance to “earn money” from one’s own content.

    User generated is growing, but social networking on mobile is still in its nascency and again the hype of the offers (with or without communication) on mobile – will drown the success. Mobile has great potential but what do users want from social networking? IM in itself is the strongest tool for social networking on mobile already. Adding secure password protected mobile sites will only complicate – not enhance the social/ mobile user experience.

  13. No, communication is not the future of social networking. Functionality, on the other hand, is.
    Look at the great social networks out there. They all have a specific purpose, whether it be bookmarking (, web surfing (stumbleupon), photo sharing (flickr). People want to do more than just write “Thanks for the add” in MySpace comments. Enhancing existing functions, adding new funcitonality and allowing for close integration with other web services is where I see social networks heading.

    But communication functionality, such as video clips in comments, a ‘Skype me’ button, live chat etc? Nah, I just don’t see people going for that. [orders edible hat online just in case!]

  14. MySpace calls it comments, not a wall. Friendster had this before MySpace and called it Testimonials. Facebook, which is where you must have gotten the word, calls it a wall.

    All of them are the same, except you can post almost arbitrary code onto MySpace’s wall.
    Facebook is a much more sophisticated social tool than MySpace or Friendster ever were.

    You are right that it is all about communication, but just like the real world, the ways in which we communicate are not so simply quantified. It is in which photos we post, and which we omit. It is in who we invite to events, and who we shaft. It is on the wall, posting inside jokes and witty quips, and it is in our public opinions, expressed to everyone on our profiles and in our blogs.

    Different people settle on different exercise routines just like they settle on different features. The Wall is probably just the feature that you have settled into using. I know bulletin junkies, and then there are people who use the photo tagging in Facebook more than anything else. There are people who prefer groups, and never post anything to any walls. Don’t assume that you alone are a sufficient sample size to make any qualified judgements about the rest of us.

    “So, when I read, ‘the future of social networking’ will focus on communication, I kind of wonder the extend of exposure people have had in exploring social-networking communities online other than YouTube and Myspace.”

    I wonder too, it’s all communications, it always has been.

  15. When I read articles like this, part of me is intrigued by the explosion recently of social-networking sites and the buzz surrounding them. Another part of me is somewhat surprised that people are just now realizing these sites for what they are, as social-networking websites are hardly anything new.

    As far as ‘communication’ goes on social websites, I think of first and foremost. is an online community for artists and art appreciators that was founded in 2000. When the site first launched the extent of interactivity was the ability to comment on artwork you wanted to voice your thoughts on as well as the artist on their personal userpages. It expanded to include a highly-trafficked forum, the ability to add users to a ‘buddy list’, recent-activity tracking, and more recently, deviantART developed inhouse, an online chat networked ( — To me, this is pretty substantial and inline with everything social-networking oriented.

    So, when I read, ‘the future of social networking’ will focus on communication, I kind of wonder the extend of exposure people have had in exploring social-networking communities online other than YouTube and Myspace. Disclosure: I’m proud to be a “Senior Member” (Former Core Staff) of deviantART since 2000 and until 2004, the Asst. Marketing Director.

  16. 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”!

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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…

  20. 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:

  21. 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…


  22. 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.

  23. 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.