In my last post on ego-centric social networks, I briefly discussed social network transitions – What’s next after Facebook, etc. I want to flesh this discussion out, and I want to highlight the particular outlying place of ego-centric social networks on the social web.
To generalize, let’s consider two types of social networks: ego-centric and object-centric. An ego-centric social network places the individual as the core of the network experience (Orkut, Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster) while the object-centric network places a non-ego element at the center of the network. Examples of object-centric networks include Flickr (social object: photograph), Dopplr (social object: travel instance), del.icio.us (social object: hyperlink) and Digg (social object: news item). The characteristics of ego- and object-centric networks are similar, and a human can certainly be considered a social object, but I delineate based on the significant experiential difference.
In a post I wrote exploring the network effect multiplier, the value proposition of object-centric social networks is described. Object-centric social networks offer core value, which is multiplied by network value. A great photo-hosting service like Flickr stands alone without the network, making it less susceptible to migration. An ego-centic network, on the other hand, has limited core-value – it’s value is largely in the network – making it highly susceptible to migration. We see this with Myspace: individuals lose little in terms of affordances when they migrate from Myspace to Facebook, making the main chore of migration network-reestablishment, a chore made ever-simpler as the migration cascade continues.
Of course, the problem with ego-centric networks lies in the fact network-reestablishment is the main chore. Talk to individuals joining Facebook today – what are they doing? They’re using inbox importers and searching to find their friends/ex-classmates/etc. It’s a game, it’s fun for a bit, but then (say it with me readers) “What’s next?” Yes, the what’s next moment occurs. This is not to say the network becomes useless: no, it’s very useful rolodex, and the newsfeeds introduce concepts of peripheral participation (or social surveillance), but the game is in essence over.
Now, a note of caution. Because ego-centric networks suffer from these vulnerabilities, it does not mean that all networks suffer from these vulnerabilities. Simply because Facebook and Friendster and Myspace are enormous it does not mean they speak for object-centric networks. Do you leave Flickr once you’ve uploaded all your photos, migrating to Zoomr to relive the experience? Of course not – object-centric networks perpetuate: the network parts of these sites just help with the perpetuation. Amy Jo Kim has discussed these “game functions” of networks extensively. The Facebook’s are the outliers of social software in many senses: size, use-behavior and lifespan.
The genesis of this post is a Techcrunch entry that talks about Facebook competitors, stating “startups might be wise to try capturing the niche that Facebook has intentionally left behind.” The blog goes on to review a number of Facebook-clone websites. As I’ve been noting for the past few months, Facebook has neglected its core audience, sacrificing college students for a broader audience. Even with this neglect, are we really supposed to believe that college students are going to start looking for and adopting a Facebook clone? This is simply not how social network transition occurs. It’s not a 1 for 1 switch.
In her essay exploring the Frienster-Myspace transition, danah boyd points to the “cluster effects” of Myspace. While Friendster and Myspace were co-evolving, both sites had their own cliques; we heard more about Friendster, but both sites had found an audience of dense, small-world clusters. It was the technical and managerial failures of Frienster that catalyzed the change, but the Friendster-Myspace transition couldnt have occurred if Myspace hadn’t been significantly primed. Friendster ex-pats moved to Myspace with increasing intensity as the networks cascaded, leaving Friendster a virtual ghost town.
What about the Myspace-Facebook transition? For the past three years, Facebook has been building dense clusters among a powerful class of users: college students. These students have wide networks, influencing peers, family members and marketers alike. There’s a ton of reasons to leave Myspace: the site is spammy, the interaction is ridiculous, it’s developed a stigma – but what can we trace the cascade to? Unlike Friendster, which just fell apart, Myspace is no longer situationally relevant. Users have got all they can from the system, they’ve exhausted the game-like experience, and there’s a viable alternative. Tech journalists, longing for a new beat after years of following Myspace, provided the coup d’grace – but none of this would have happened if Facebook hadn’t had strong initial clusters.
In Gladwellian language, we need a “tipping point” to fuel the transition cascade, but a network must first be populated with dense clusters for the transition to occur. Why is this? Pretty simply, only about 2.5% of us want to be the first onto the dance floor (or have the skills to find the dance floor, to abuse the metaphor). Facebook developed its clusters by exploiting tightly-knit communities (college campuses). Legend has it that the Myspace founders drove up and down California exploiting the tight-knit car-tweaker communities. These clusters provided the seeds for network growth. In every case, it was less about the affordances and feature set, more about the network and connecting tight clusters.
Therefore, the idea of college students jumping ship from Facebook to an empty Facebook-clone is pretty ridiculous. No matter how many features, or whatever, these nets have – the features aren’t the motivating factor. So what will be the next big thing? It will be a situationally relevant social experience that exploits dense, underserved clusters, treating the ego-centric aspects as a sub-feature. I’m almost certain that the experience will be mobile based, incorporating geolocational data and personal beacons. We’ll still want a rich social experience, but this experience will be secondary to the core situationally relevant need answered by the site (be it positional data or otherwise).
Important to understand is that, in the context of individual value, network size does not trump network relevance. This is where Facebook is so instructuve. Yes, we care about everyone we know, but we care more about the people we see every day. In the words of social capital theorists, we’re more interested in bonding than bridging social capital. As the next networks will trade in hyper-personal data, success requires the creation of network-enforced boundaries. Using Facebook’s gimmick is uninspired, there will be better ways of doing this in the future.
The next transition, however, is a few years off. We’ve got another 1-2 more years of significant Facebook growth. I expect their network will top off around 250-300M members before the next phase transition occurs. This will make Facebook an extremely wealthy company if they can capitalize before the transition point. Unfortunately, since they are ego-centric, there’s no way to sustain this network in the long-haul. However, this 1-2 year lead time will give mobile devices significant time to improve; the iPhone and iPhone clones will be in the hands of hundreds of millions of youth, priming the market for the next phase transition.
As I’ve stated, Facebook and the ego-centric social networks are the outliers in social software. And while its tempting to be the outlier (look, Techcrunch says Facebook is the 5th most valuable internet company ever!), its an ultimately impossible proposition. Object-centric networks, however, offer unlimited potential. Look at del.icio.us – the site is built on the fact that we can have a social experience around a hyperlink – and you can imagine hundreds and thousands of other possibilities. Don’t mistake this as a call for niche social networks – they only work if they’re situationally relevant – but rather as a call towards bringing smart experiences to the social objects we value. There’s still tremendous potential out there.