If Social Networks Were Like Cars…

I have been thinking a lot about social networks lately, and why there are so many of them, and what will happen in that space.

Today I had what I think is a "big realization" about this.

Everyone, including myself, seems to think that there is only room for one big social network, and it looks like Facebook is winning that race. But what if that assumption is simply wrong from the start?

What if social networks are more like automobile brands? In other words, there can, will and should be many competing brands in the space?

Social networks no longer compete on terms of who has what members. All my friends are in pretty much every major social network.

I also don’t need more than one social network, for the same reason — my friends are all in all of them. How many different ways do I need to reach the same set of people? I only need one.

But the Big Realization is that no social network satisfies all types of users. Some people are more at home in a place like LinkedIn than they are in Facebook, for example. Others prefer MySpace.  There are always going to be different social networks catering to the common types of people (different age groups, different personalities, different industries, different lifestyles, etc.).

The Big Realization implies that all the social networks are going to be able to interoperate eventually, just like almost all email clients and servers do today. Email didn’t begin this way. There were different networks, different servers and different clients, and they didn’t all speak to each other. To communicate with certain people you had to use a certain email network, and/or a certain email program. Today almost all email systems interoperate directly or at least indirectly. The same thing is going to happen in the social networking space.

Today we see the first signs of this interoperability emerging as social networks open their APIs and enable increasing integration. Currently there is a competition going on to see which "open" social network can get the most people and sites to use it. But this is an illusion. It doesn’t matter who is dominant, there are always going to be alternative social networks, and the pressure to interoperate will grow until it happens. It is only a matter of time before they connect together.

I think this should be the greatest fear at companies like Facebook. For when it inevitably happens they will be on a level playing field competing for members with a lot of other companies large and small. Today Facebook and Google’s scale are advantages, but in a world of interoperability they may actually be disadvantages — they cannot adapt, change or innovate as fast as smaller, nimbler startups.

Thinking of social networks as if they were automotive brands also reveals interesting business opportunities. There are still several unowned opportunities in the space.

Myspace is like the car you have in high school. Probably not very expensive, probably used, probably a bit clunky. It’s fine if you are a kid driving around your hometown.

Facebook is more like the car you have in college. It has a lot of your junk in it, it is probably still not cutting edge, but its cooler and more powerful.

LinkedIn kind of feels like a commuter car to me. It’s just for business, not for pleasure or entertainment.

So who owns the "adult luxury sedan" category? Which one is the BMW of social networks?

Who owns the sportscar category? Which one is the Ferrari of social networks?

Who owns the entry-level commuter car category?

Who owns equivalent of the "family stationwagon or minivan" category?

Who owns the SUV and offroad category?

You see my point. There are a number of big segments that are not owned yet, and it is really unlikely that any one company can win them all.

If all social networks are converging on the same set of features, then eventually they will be close to equal in function. The only way to differentiate them will be in terms of the brands they build and the audience segments they focus on. These in turn will cause them to emphasize certain features more than others.

In the future the question for consumers will be "Which social network is most like me? Which social network is the place for me to base my online presence?"

Sue may connect to Bob who is in a different social network — his account is hosted in a different social network. Sue will not be a member of Bob’s service, and Bob will not be a member of Sue’s, yet they will be able to form a social relationship and communication channel. This is like email. I may use Outlook and you may use Gmail, but we can still send messages to each other.

Although all social networks will interoperate eventually, depending on each person’s unique identity they may choose to be based in — to live and surf in — a particular social network that expresses their identity, and caters to it. For example, I would probably want to be surfing in the luxury SUV of social networks at this point in my life, not in the luxury sedan, not the racecar, not in the family car, not the dune-buggy. Someone else might much prefer an open source, home-built social network account running on a server they host. It shouldn’t matter — we should still be able to connect, share stuff, get notified of each other’s posts, etc. It should feel like we are in a unified social networking fabric, even though our accounts live in different services with different brands, different interfaces, and different features.

I think this is where social networks are heading. If it’s true then there are still many big business opportunities in this space.

Social tagging: > > > > > > >

6 Responses to If Social Networks Were Like Cars…

  1. Ning comes to mind, as does Yahoo Groups: Each is a platform for social networks.
    Chris Saad will have his hands full, to be sure. Let’s face it, some of the larger players will want to have a wall. Maintaining a wall may not be doable in the long(er)-term, but may allow certain dominant players to increase their market share (and mind share) while interoperability and portability issues are finally (re)solved.
    But this poses an interesting question for Twine. A couple of twines have 1,000+ members (not including the Twine twines): Web 3.0, Apps. Each could, in theory, be its own social network. This hasn’t happened yet, but we should explore ways to make it happen, you Radarians with your Web 3.0 twine, myself with my Apps twine.
    On a small scale, QBL serves this function, as do many private twines. But for 1,000+ “social networks,” a different approach is likely needed. However, they’re still a far cry from the likes of MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn in numbers. Yet, 1,000 would be a lot for a Yahoo Group or Ning — and Twine, still in a private beta, already has two twines with over 1,000 members (mine is approaching 1,500 and is pretty much self-sustaining at this point). But how do we convert Web 3.0 and Apps to a true social network? Or, do we even want to do this?

  2. I think you’re smack on.
    Reading this made me think of an old blog post of my own – I’m waiting for the Trillian of social networking – from 2004, which was pretty much along the same lines.
    Probably the most interesting bit, reading it again now is to see how much things have changed in both the IM and the Social Networking space. Facebook and MySpace didn’t really exist, and who on earth remembers Trillian anymore?

  3. Nova,
    Social Networks, like Shared Bookmarking systems, Blogs, Wikis etz.. all fall into the same category (in my eyes): Data Spaces on the Web.
    They all end up exposing data access via APIs (SOAP or REST), eventually; which makes them no different than a traditional DBMS with a Call Level Interface (a native OS locked API for a specific DBMS).
    Linked Data enables Virtualization across these Data Spaces. Which is basically what OpenLink Data Spaces is about (by leveraging our Virtuoso Virtualization engine for SQL, XML, and RDF). Just get a URI and point the ODS platform to all you Data Spaces on the Web, that’s it, and from that point onwards, your URI becomes your “Data Source Name” (DSN).
    All that I described above has worked fine within the old Client-Server realm of the enterprise for eons, pre-Web ubiquity. The same rules apply to the Web courtesy of Linked Data, but with the added advantage of the mass connectibvity that the Web accords and the level of data granularity that Linked Data facilitates.
    1. http://virtuoso.openlinksw.com/dataspace/dav/wiki/Main/GetAPersonalURIIn5MinutesOrLess – Get a URI in 5 Minutes or Less
    2. http://virtuoso.openlinksw.com/presentations/DataPortability_and_DataSpaces-2.ppt – OpenLink Data Spaces & Data Portability

  4. Mei Brill says:

    It’d be great when this interoperability becomes a reality. But who knows when that’ll be.
    While we’re holding our breath for it… another related question is – how can one best organize/manage one’s online presence given so many choices of outlets?

  5. Mei Brill says:

    It’d be great when this interoperability becomes a reality. But who knows when that’ll be.
    While we’re holding our breath for it… anthoer related question is – “how can one best organize/manage one’s online presense given so many choices of outlets”?

  6. Nate Cull says:

    Currently, with the social networking systems we have, the real comparison is not to cars but to railways.
    The Web, the TCP/IP Internet and the public phone system are all like ‘highways’ in that you are free by design and law to use whatever ‘vehicle’ or client you want to navigate them.
    But the social networks are privately owned spaces that by design (and sometimes law) only allow clients also owned by the Company to use them.
    That’s why there were so many monopolistic railway barons back in the nineteenth century. Like the social networking space (and the pre-Web Online Services before them, Compuserve and The WELL et al). The barriers to entry were huge, and the single provider controlled *both* the client experience AND the content. When the content is people, of course, as it is for communication and transport, you really do have a ‘captive market’.
    The car analogy only comes into play *after* you have created a freely and legally interoperable shared data space. That’s not something that’s hugely important for a free society, but will happen if people realise they need it and make it happen.