Social Networks Are a Phase – Not the End Game

Credit: Justin Kirstner, With Facebook reaching saturation point in many countries and Twitter growth slowing down some people are heralding the end of social media.  I think...

Credit: Justin Kirstner,
Credit: Justin Kirstner,

With Facebook reaching saturation point in many countries and Twitter growth slowing down some people are heralding the end of social media.  I think this view is grossly premature, not because I’m a fan of social networks (though I am), but because I believe that social networks are a transition, not the end-game, for social media.

Let me explain myself.

Back in 2000 I co-founded etribes, a niche communications agency that developed online communities and trained forum moderators. We were innovators (meaning we made it up as we went along) and our primary customers were non-profits. We focused on building “communities of interest” around specific issues, such as epilepsy, Youth Hostelling and wildlife conservation. The goals were laudable and several of these communities were moderately successful.

The majority, however, failed and it wasn’t until we began to prioritise personal features – such as a profile, private messaging and blogs – over communal ones – such as forums, notice boards and chat-rooms – that we noticed a dramatic increase in “stickiness” (aka usage). I remember puzzling over this at the time. There was clearly a preference for community members to create their own online presence, rather than engage in communal areas. Where would that lead us? And did it mean that online communities wouldn’t work?

As we now know – by focusing on that desire to create an online presence and share it with friends, family and acquaintances – social networks like Mypace and Bebo, then Facebook and Twitter have changed how we communicate and how we receive our social news. But when we examine this achievement closely, all they have done is exploit our desire to interact with the first and most fundamental community that everybody has – the people we know.

Social networks are not the end game of online social interaction. They have, instead, merely opened the door to the next phase of social media. In 2000 95% of people had never interacted in an online community. Today, 59% of lawyers have a social networking account and 20% of the US population have played a game on a social network. We now all understand the potential of online communities – and that’s just one step away from joining one. Back in 2000 most people were very wary of the perceived privacy and security risks of interacting online. Today around 200 million people have “open” conversations that anyone can listen to on Twitter. Our mindset has been altered forever.

The structure of the Internet has altered too. In addition to our fixed online presence – our blog, Twitter account or Facebook profile – we now have a presence online. This consists of the various places in which we have commented, been mentioned, linked to or browsed through. In such a dispersed web, the very notion of privacy is almost farcical. The last stopper to wholehearted online interaction has been removed. So what now?

Many people, especially among the early adopters, are tiring of social networks in search of something more. There are glimpses of something new in Foursquare, which blends real-life places with virtual networks, and in certain uses of Twitter, where real-time searches provide news-streams on a billion niche topics, and scheduled hasthag chats create “flash” forums that anyone can join. But these are tit-bits.

The next fundamental development in how we use social media will, in my view, come when we learn to connect online with meaning. When we aren’t just passively sharing news and photos, but are getting answers to critical questions about our lives, connecting with people who will change our lives, or helping others to change theirs. Reaching that point is partly an issue of confidence, and social networks have helped huge numbers to cross the threshold and have the courage to interact online (for that we can be thankful), but it’s also a question of value. In the absence of lasting value, social networks are at risk of becoming redundant. In this shifting environment, online communities – which are based on an exchange of value – are ripe for a come-back.

Justin Kirstner’s graph (above) shows the three phases of the Web – New media, Web 2.0 and Social Media. Interestingly, he predicts that social media will peak in 2012, which is about the same time as I think the majority of Facebook users will become fed up with it. What will they do then?

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