Once upon a time, the world was buzzing about social networks. Ironically, this was back in my graduate school days where I was conducting research at Carnegie Mellon in the area. Entrepreneurs and VCs rushed to introduce a flurry of “social network” services with promises to connect people around the world. Names like Friendster and Tribe were touted as holding the keys to the future of the web. Many services seemed to grow substantial user bases overnight. The online community was excited. Things looked good.
However, like most new things, the novelty soon wore off. People grew tired of trying to maintain 3-4 different networks. “Connecting for the sake of connecting” was no longer good enough and public interest seemed to fade as copy-cat services ran rampant on the web. Many services just could not cross the proverbial “chasm.”
One service, however, has seemed to stand apart from the rest. This social network service not only has managed to capture the spotlight, but also has managed to accomplish the unthinkable-capture the consistent attention of users. What service is this do you ask? MySpace. Founded by Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, this service has quickly become one of the hottest properties on the web. In case you were on another planet for the last couple months, MySpace was acquired to the tune of $580M by Rupert Murdoch’s media monster, News Corp. Where did this service succeed where others did not?
Like other services in this category, MySpace allowed users to publish personal profiles and connect to friends. Unlike other services facilitating the creation of social networks, however, MySpace transformed the social network into an actionable mechanism to facilitate communication. Once you found new friends, you could instantly see if they were online and start to communicate using an instant messaging service right away. Thus, the network provided people with a mechanism not only to find people, but also a novel mechanism to enhance communication. This subtle differentiator, coupled with their ability to cater to up and coming musicians proved to be an absolutely magical formula. Teens and young adults alike soon found themselves spending hours “stalking” people on MySpace.
The lesson here is that the key to success in any social service is to make the network actionable. Leveraging a social network to enhance existing services such as communication, finding new music, and sharing files can be extremely powerful. However, creating a network for the sake of having a network will probably leave you with what some other folks are now stuck trying to figure out what to do with – a whole bunch of nothing.
The idea of social networking software has evolved significantly over the years. Although there has been tremendous progress in this space, we have only begun to scratch the surface of the power of social software. As I had mentioned on David Hornik’s Ventureblog, social networks in their present incarnation are anything but “social.” Contact information is fragmented and trapped within the bounds and context of a particular service. There is not consistent social network across services. Hopefully, you will see some progress on this front soon.