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Are Social Networks Just a Feature?

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Social networks are now cropping up like mushrooms after a monsoon, most of them slight variations on the MySpaceFacebook 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, 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 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.

66 Responses to “Are Social Networks Just a Feature?”

  1. 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 was launched in this optic.

  2. 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 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.

  3. 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 =, networking becomes powerful and essential – and monetisable.

  4. 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, 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 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

    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

  8. I agree with this – we designed our new site 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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, 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! ;-)

  13. Sameer Shisodia

    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.

  14. 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.


  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. Jesse Kopelman

    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.

  20. 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.)

  21. 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.

  22. 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.