April 21st, 2008
I have been wanting to do this story for a while based on my experiences of working with social media and trying to make sense of the growth and subsequent abandonment of many social networks.
It seems it is every month that we have another star social network, social web concept, or interaction model. Right now Twitter seems to be the golden child of the social web, but before that we had Facebook, MySpace (one of my personal least favourite) and even Friendster taking turns as the next “it” service. In Japan, the market is less volatile with Mixi being the long standing flag bearer and others such as Gree having been active and growing for an extended period, but the same market forces are at work.
Some of these services are still growing strong but the interaction is often becoming less interesting over time and eventually people will leave for the next service to capture the imagination of the masses.
In my opinion the reason for this exodus over time is due to more than fleeting trends, it is because of the way that our use of them grows through three phases. I call them…
The three stages of social media relevance.
Stage 1 : The Noob
Everyone who has joined a social network can remember that feeling of arriving and realising it is very quiet with no friends. With this being the initial experience of a social network, it is no wonder that as a new user we usually have a reaction of apathy to the new offering that we stumble on.
Some of this has been rectified by some smart tricks such as email matching from an online mail client or imports direct from another social network. Open Social also seems to offer something to aid this entry process once it has more uptake.
Even so, that initial process is about making connections before we can interact. If it is a permission based social structure this can be an even more drawn out process before we can populate our ghost town.
Stage 2 : The Happy Medium
Somewhere shortly after breaking out of the Noob stage, we see the light. Our social service’s purpose and usefulness become clear and it begins to enhance our online (and sometimes offline) social lives. Being connected serves a purpose, we add the mobile website as the start page on our brand new mobile phone, we download the desktop app and life is good.
The daily experience is that of witty banter between friends, colleagues and new acquaintances on a public or semi-public forum, of quick dissemination or absorption of information. The utility and enjoyment of the service is actually at its peak here in my opinion, although often we don’t realise it.
We look to our socially wealthier contemporaries with admiration. If I have so much value with 40 friends, how much fun will I have with double that? triple?
Stage 3 : Overeating
It would be wonderful if we all could keep our cool and stay at Stage 2, but the temptation of more followers, more friends or more contacts is too much to resist. The social kudos of breaking the 200 friends barrier, of having 300 contacts with 15,000 people at a mere two steps removed is too much to resist. There are always more people to connect with and more people to compare your gaudy numbers against.
Robert Scoble has more than 21,000 people that he follows on Twitter. That amounts to a tweet almost every second, far too much for any person to keep up with. This is an extreme example but also symptomatic of the Overeater.
The average Overeater gets started as early as 50-100 social connections. Somewhere in that range you go from keeping up to date with your friends to struggling to sift through the noise to get to the juicy content. Once you go over 100 contacts you usually start to spend more time sifting that you do reading. The purpose of the medium starts to become subverted and you lose the ability to stay connected in a convenient way.
There are clear motivations for continuing to grow your network. The obvious one is to connect with or reach as many people as possible to advertise your agenda. The reality of connecting with so many people is that the information you pass and collect becomes an unmanageable mess. The micro-blog is alive, but polluted with noise. It is broken.
Where to from here?
There is a solution somewhere and I, like many others, am searching for the next model to extend the function and positive engagement of the social web. Of course, I hope I discover it first, but regardless, I will be happy to have a model that supports growth and expansion in a more valuable way, balancing the voices that matter and subverting the ones that distract more effectively.