The Bell Now Tolls for Social Networks

I blame David Hasselhoff.

Everything was going fine for the web — the financial world had been unwinding its overleveraged excesses for nearly a year without nary a ripple into Silicon Valley — until the launch of HoffSpace, a social network revolving around the oogachaka-ing, burger-wagging actor.

Some bloggers called it a bizarre nightmare. Others decried it as the end of social networks. They were probably joking. But they were right.

Hoffspace showed once and for all what the web sector had fought so hard to admit: These social networks had finally expanded a niche too far. No longer was it possible to argue that one day social networking sites would be anywhere near as good at making money as they were at expanding, fractal-like, into a grey goo of trivial matter.

Social networks spent too much time trying to build audiences without building a solid business model. The thinking was, let thousands of startups innovate in thousands of ways and one of them will stumble onto something big. The way eBay did with online auctions, or Google did with a better search engine.

But even the site voted most likely to succeed is still punting when it comes to financial success. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told a German paper this week that the site won’t have a business model for three years. “Growth is primary, revenue is secondary,” he said. On the face of it, that statement isn’t absurd. But coming last week, it sounded blindly out of touch. Facebook will surely survive, but smaller sites looking to it as a role model probably won’t.

This was the week when the Internet sector realized that not only are the good times over, but that much of the room we had for innovation is also gone. The time to experiment around with big, audacious ideas is passing. The invoice for that luxury is now due, and companies will have to either pay up or be so well-funded, like Facebook, that they can still afford tinker a bit. Money is what everyone is expecting from startups, simply because there is suddenly so much less of it around.

Of course, one thing that would help the sector would be if a major social networking company were to give enough of a peek into its books to show it has healthy cash flows, even a robust operating or net profit. But sites like Facebook and MySpace have been suspiciously shy about their financials so far, so that’s not likely to happen.

Many of these sites — focused on social networks or widgets or other mere embellishments to the web that emerged over the past few years — aren’t going to make it. Some with a smart focus, like LinkedIn, will muddle through. A few will be bought out cheap; others will live on as labors of love.

This is the destructive part of that celebrated and magical creative-destruction formula. A lot of areas in tech are probably going to find ways to keep growing, if more slowly: mobile advertising, perhaps, or cheaper, more efficient on-demand software.

Skeptics have been arguing for the past few years that social networking wasn’t a standalone business model, but a feature to enhance larger businesses with established business models. It seems that fate is finally happening. It just took a luminary like David Hasselhoff to make it real.

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