I’m getting the distinct feeling that social networks are getting overplayed. Worn out, not cutting-edge anymore, yesterday’s news. Sites and companies seem to be launching new social networks every day simply for the sake of having a social network to put out a press release about so they can catch some of the buzz wave. USA Today and Cisco are the latest examples–USA Today reconfigured their site to be a social network, and Cisco has acquired two social networking companies this year alone.
This is all well and good–social networks are an interesting concept, and there are definitely good and useful features within them. However, if EVERYone is running a social network, doesn’t that dramatically reduce the value of each individual network? If a user belongs to one, two, or even three social networks, they can probably keep up with them and add value to the community. However, when every site they use is a social network, can they really keep up enough to add real value, or are they spreading themselves too thin across too many networks? Instead of information overload, where people start ignoring information because there’s just too much of it, are we going to start seeing social network overload, where people ignore social networks because they just don’t want to deal with them? I think the answer to that is a clear "yes" when you look at sites like Popurls which aggregate content from social networking sites in one place. It doesn’t offer any of the social networking interaction functionality but simply provides a clean front end to look at the content without interacting with the community itself.
The backlash against the new USA Today social redesign bears this out. Don Dodge has an interesting breakdown on his site:
"Reader reaction? 92% don’t like it. I read all 130 comments (at the time of this post) from readers and they were brutal; "hate it", "what were you thinking", "awful", are just a few of the comments. Only 10 out of 130 had anything positive to say. Wow! "
He goes on to say that the lesson for entrepeneurs is to work more closely with your users on site design and functionality changes. I think the real lesson, however, is not to add new features just because all the cool kids are doing it. That is how bubbles are born, and makes you look like you’re just blowing with the prevailing wind without any real direction.
I really think that the solution to this lies in a consistent online identity revolving around a permanent personal URL, around which the user can build online reputation and identity. Social networks themselves are becoming heavily commoditized, there is really no inherent value in the social network itself anymore beyond its user base. If social networks were built to use people’s permanent online identity in the form of a URL, however, it wouldn’t matter where the user participated online and which networks they used because all of the activity would be building long-term equity in the user’s identity. In the end, it comes down to a mindset shift that needs to happen about social networks–it’s not about "owning" users and making your social network sticky, it’s about providing niche value and focused groups of users around a particular topic. Widgets, bells, and whistles are nice, but they will not stand up to social network overload.