This is a map of the internet (via). It’s produced by creating packets of data that can be spread from computer to computer, node to node, country to country which are then tracked once they have been sent out onto the web. Things never sit still on the internet. This map was already out of date as it was being completed. Millions of conversations, millions of possibilities, millions of connections for marketers to try and navigate.
Right now, social networking is dominated by a relatively small number of big players. But will it always be so? I doubt it. The Henley Centre recently asked an interesting question about the future of Search. Is it possible that one of Google’s major strengths – the clean search box , the ease of use, the commoditised ad revenues that go with it – is perhaps masking its principal weakness? As media content and ad revenues fragment to serve a potentially infinite number of vertical online communities based on lifestyle or profession: “Google may suddenly seem standardised, commoditised and lacking a sense of unique community. Is Google becoming Wal-Mart, while vertical communities may prefer Harrods?”
I think there are some very good reasons to believe this will not be the case: Google’s pace of technological innovation, the degree of personalisation already available, customised search capabilities. But it raises an interesting question. Will smaller, nimbler, more relevant web services and social networks become sexier than the current crop of big players?
Already, you can barely read a trade news source without tripping over the launch of the latest Web 2.0 site (or brand initiative) that has social networking functionality built around it. Ning, of-course, provides anyone with the ability to set up their own network. The founders of Ning say they are committed to enabling “a diversity of social networks the same way the web browser enabled millions of different websites”.
That’s a pretty big ambition but they’ve certainly made a good start. Launched in October 2004, there are now officially over 30,000 different networks (I actually calculated there must be nearer 52,000 from the number of page listings available) from librarians to microbrew enthusiasts, to Natasha Bedingfield fans (which unsurprisingly has only 129 members)…and of-course, the Plannershere. Surfing the thousands of networks is at once a fascinating insight into the diversity of human interest and a distinctly bizarre experience.
I think Dan Taylor is right when he says that Social Networking is going niche, and that as it matures the number of users in niche communities will outstrip those in more generic networks. But I also think it doesn’t end there. We all have multiple facets to our lives. People will surely use different networks for different purposes, something that will require the management of multiple profiles and networks – some personal, some professional, some more active than others. Life is complicated enough. More generic networks may well find themselves not only becoming more defined aggregators of communities, but having to provide more tools for their users in a niche-shaped future. My Space has an equivalent number of users to make it the 11th biggest country in the world, but is after all comprised of thousands and thousands of much smaller communities that interlink and overlap.
This more niche future is largely a good thing for advertisers. Magazine owners know a thing or two about community. The magazine medium, like this new world of social networking (humour me here), is a medium of scale that offers almost endless niche targeting opportunities. The scale of broadcast, if you like, with the beauty of narrowcast (though it is rarely given credit for the former). This inevitably lends itself to greater levels of affinity, relevance and (dareIsayit) ‘engagement’.
Research conducted by online community developer Communispace (via), based on analyzing the behaviour of more than 26,000 users and 66 “private online communities", found that the more intimate the community, the more people participate. 86% of those who had logged on to facilitated communities with 300-500 members made contributions (contrary to the large numbers of ‘lurkers’ you usually get in larger networks). The more intimate the community, and the stronger the common interests, the more people participate…and the greater the opportunity for advertising and brands to be relevant and generate affinity. Sounds simple doesn’t it?