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A Taxonomy of Social Networks?

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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 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.

38 Responses to “A Taxonomy of Social Networks?”

  1. Jill Schroder

    Yeah, Niche based social networking is huge right now. How many can you count? Which ones will survive. There are two really important questions that come out of this though. What is the next big thing besides social networking and how many networks can a niche handle?

    You know, flixster is not the only source for new movie reviews and movie lists. Just like the others you listed are not the only ones in that niche either. One comes along, another improves the niche – thats what seems to be happening.

  2. great post liz… sorry i missed it earlier.

    i’d say you could collapse everything down to these 2 classifications:

    • horizontal: targets a wide variety of features that pertain to a broad social networking demographic

    • vertical: targets a specific set of features that pertain to a niche-focused social networking demographic

    there’s probably room for more than one horizontal — altho it might be an uphill climb if there’s already a MySpace, Facebook, or LinkedIn for the broad demographic you’re going after (and yes, i’d still call LinkedIn a horizontal, rather than a niche vertical).

    however, i’d agree the future is likely full of many, many vertical SNS plays that all rely on feature set highly integrated with the niche demographic & their native activities.

    a possible 3rd category is a SNS tool that would provide visibility / integration across multiple SNS services — if you believe a “long tail” of niche verticals will come into play, then such a service could be useful. while i don’t know if PeopleAggregator (or ProfileLinker, or UpScoop) are there yet, feels like something could be interesting there… hint, hint.

  3. Interesting taxonomy. Can I add the term “social Commerce?”

    People always try to leverage their social network for a purpose, ranging from finding a dog-sitter, a restaurant, a soul mate, a job or a job candidate.

    In the off-line world we believed “it’s not what you know but who you know!” WIth the www our social networks have grown exponentially: I have 950 LinkedIn connections, and 167,500 people are only 2 degrees away from me. A lot of merely weak ties so to speak.

    How do you extract “strength from weak ties”?

    It’s all about social capital and who you ask to propagate your request for help. Ask an easy favor from a close friend and success is guaranteed – ask a complex question to bunch of mere acquaintances, and you may find that you do not have enough social capital with them to get your request evaluated and propagated.

    Social commerce means adding a cash thank-you payment / reward to your request, and it’s amazing how this can convert your social network into a discriminating but motivated search party on your behalf.

    [email protected]

  4. spentunygen that is that music MLM and it’s an interesting play which combines everything except global warming as a feature…

    my take is the the ‘intertia only’ networks like myspc and facebk are done; the concept of ‘shared interest’ social networking is going to explode…lots of early entrants and it’s about ‘getting something done’ or ‘facilitating’ something you do already but the SISN makes it ‘easier’…more convenient.

    It’s a morph of the ‘news groups’ concept with silo search sites…


  5. I’d also add “commercial crowdsourcing” sites like … the forums/networks/social aspect of this commercial site is as important (and appealing to members) as it is in flickr.


  6. Doug K., I agree that those services can be social (similar to, except without a specific topic like music), but adding too many social features (discovering new friends, intra-network communication tools, profiles, etc) can get too distracting from the core function, don’t you think?

  7. I think that you are missing one. Community around Shared Services. Think or Meebo (although meebo could expand greatly on this idea). I think there is great room for growth in this area.

  8. I totally disagree – These targeted social networks are way to limited, If myspace only earns 25 million a month off 150 million members these little social sites do not have a chance, For instance look at that new network they have musicians regular users and it’s own separate profile category for businesses. Why have seperate websites when you can have one with categories? Slowly but surely you’ll see these “targeted networks” expand to all users like myspace and zooped are currently doing.

  9. Hey Marc,

    I did mention white-label services in the post, including your own, saying they serve both existing interests and existing communities. As for OpenID, yes I most definitely have heard of it, but you are right, that is a topic for another post.


  10. Regarding the white labels (since Marc commented) and Yahoo groups (since Liz mentioned). I would think these go hand-in-hand. That white-label social networks will be the evolutionary step to replace Yahoo groups and perhaps message boards. “Forum 2.0” as some have called them…

    These communities are relatively small, very niched, and have limited scope and scale. A “private” white-labeled social network makes a lot of sense to me for these affinities. Something like Barack Obama’s social network or a SNS for a specific basketball team… 5 years ago, they would have used a forum or Yahoo group. Now they’re starting to use white-labeled social networks. Seems like the long tail to me…

  11. Great post Liz.

    Social networks really seemm to serve 2 purposes – communication and self-expression. Communication is the main driver for what you’re calling blank slates, as many have commented already. They usually mirror a real offline community (ex. the college campus), and need network effects from critical mass to kick in before they’re useful.

    Fortunately, for a case like Facebook, the face-to-face community is granular enough to be useful without needing tens of millions of users to be effective (like myspace does). For example, if just 50% of my college campus is on Facebook, the network as a communication platform is already useful for me. The utility is orders of magnitude higher if 75% of my campus is on. Having other campuses around the country or world is a benefit, but a relatively small one. The network effect is mostly local.

    There are only a few offline communities left that can be granularized cleanly in this fashion. In these cases, communication can still be the main driver without tens of millions of users as long as there is healthy buy-in from your “local cell”

    (I like to think that churches are one of them… we’ll see)

    So most of the successful “niche” social networks will really be about self-expression, where the core value isn’t in the network. The value is in the content, and is enhanced by a lightweight social network wrapped around it (ex., Flixster, LibraryThing, etc). In these cases, there’s relatively little “networking” and it makes complete sense that the social network is just a feature.

    I’ve read enough of Jeremy Liew’s posts to learn that these niches can only monetize with endemic ad bases. (music, movies, books)

    As opposed to social networks around target audiences like soccer moms, where the real value of the social network is the communication and networking aspect. And unless these demographic communities can be granularized into face-to-face cells (like Facebook), they will need to be a blank slate as big as Myspace/Bebo before network effects make them useful.

    Certainly a very tall order.

  12. Hmmm well maybe we SHOULDN’T bring our business to United Layer since Richard is plugging the competition.

    I’m not sure if its Liz or Richard who got us wrong – but the PeopleAggregator is definitely a platform play – not a specific niche vertical market. I guess Liz just kind of left ‘white-label’ platforms out of te taxonomy as we’re meta – we can do whatever our clients wish to do.

    I’m sorry that Liz didn’t bring up scale and scope – as I think you’ll find that the target NUMBER of people heavily effects the success ratio and odds in this world.

    If you aim LOW enough – even new horizontal blank slates – like fatvine and customerforce – have a chance if they keep their initial investment low and overhead down.

    And as for a “form of integration between the proliferating places to maintain your digital identity” – HELLO Liz – ever heard of OpenID?

    How ’bout FOAF or XFN?

    Its all staring us in the face.

  13. It seems as though there are two types of social networks, those that are people centric (what you call blank slates) and those that are centered around some other thing or interest (flixster on movies, yelp on local businesses, Flickr on photos etc). [ps note typo in body of text – flixster has an S in it]

    I agree with you that its getting harder and harder to get a people centric/blank slate social network to critical mass. These networks are really about communication, and just as there is an upper limit to the number of webmail and instant messanger accounts that users will have, so too there is an upper limit to the number of people centric social networks that they will have.

    For the other sort though, I agree with Om. Social networks are just a feature for sites that are inherently about something else (just as message boards are, or rich web applications are). I’ve posted a bit about this, and the inherent business model attractiveness of targeted content (whether it be targeted to interests, communities or audiences) in the last paragraph of my post on investing in Flixster a few days ago – click on my name in this comment if you’re interested to read it.

  14. I guess in one year we will have some definite points to identify illusive cross-social-networking user, that will be lost in cross major social netwotkings.

    It will looks like RSS-identity based on XML which will form a taxonomy for SNS. Those languages are ready (W3C: RDF) to be well implemented for that.

    I like to watch process from a prizm of globality, attractors which takes all over place in that global saucepan filled boiling sns-water.

  15. Liz,

    Interesting post. I suggest that you do the same exercise one year later. It might be simpler. The market is still in its infancy and many shops will close doors because no customers and we can expect a wave of consolidation; so proliferation is clearly symptomatic of an immature market. It is my opinion that the winners will transpose to the web human social behavior that we find in real life.

  16. Within the US it seems that Facebook is optimized for the college age crowd, mySpace has an older mix and Bebo works better for teens. Then looking at other geographies there are different mixes and leaders in each country. This has allowed sites like Bebo to find a way into what looks like a crowded market. It will be interesting to see what happens as the population ages, do people migrate to a new network, or carry their existing network into an older demographic?

  17. Liz

    Very good article, I have written a number on the same subject over the months, latest is called a href=””>Social Media Proliferation – 5 things you really need to know.

    One point I would make re vs Pandora – Pandora has a database approach as well, gets you there far faster – I think efficiency will count more as social nets proliferate.

    As for the Digital Lifestyle Aggregators (DLAs) – there are so many of them, who shall build the first DLA Aggregator?

  18. 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…


  19. 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. and 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).

  20. 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.

  21. 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 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.

  22. 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 :)

  23. Brandon Mills

    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…

  24. 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.