August 21, 2009

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What Makes Social Networks Grow Also Kills Them

I think social networks are like holiday destinations. Once they get really popular, they cease to be the idyllic, unspoilt paradises that made them so attractive in the first place.

Twitter's a bit like Cyprus. It may once have had a rustic mediterranean charm, all unspoiled beaches and quirky local tavernas and mile after mile of olive groves. But today it's just one big unfinished building site; a sea of English-themed pubs serving chips with everything and mile after mile of rooftop satellite dishes, clustered around beaches that are full to bursting with people that expect chips with everything, the same TV they get at home, and all the road signs and menus to be in English.

12 months ago, Twitter was great. It had a simple charm and was relatively unspoiled by porn, spam, advertising and the dickheads that have ruined other social networks like MySpace and Facebook. Most Twitter users were actual people. I mean real people. Who weren't selling porn or viagra. Real people who weren't dickheads. And it was a pretty swish neighbourhood, too. On Twitter, you could send a message to Stephen Fry or Jonathan Ross or Robert Llewellyn, and there was a decent chance that they'd actually respond. How jolly civilised and egalitarian.

Now it's all gone Pete Tong. The porn merchants have moved in, the spammers and scammers have started to operate in our previously fairly crime-free neighbourhood, and every other bloody person that follows me now is either a "social media guru" (and there's a four-letter word beginning with "c" that has the same essential meaning) or a robot with the body of an 18 year-old girl. And the beaches of Twitter are now so hopelessly overcrowded that someone like Stephen Fry, with thrumpty zillion followers all clamoring for his attention, is effectively just broadcasting to the majority of Twitter users - which kind of defeats the object of a social network, I suspect.

I've seen this process - from charming, unspoiled paradise to dirty, overcrowded destination for lager louts and sex tourists - happen many times on many social networks. I actually think that it's a natural lifeycle that they go through. And I think this is the main weakness of the current social networking business model. Your Web 2.0 site will turn into the Costa del Sol eventually. No matter what precautions you take, you must leave your network open enough to be useful to real people who want to connect with other real people. That openness - most vividly demonstrated by Twitter, which is pretty much a house made of glass with very feeble locks on the doors - is what makes your network grow. And it's also what makes your network grow ugly and eventually die.

A smart entrepreneur would recognise this fact of Web 2.0 life, and start putting their money into new destinations the moment they recognise the early signs of saturation.

They also need to accept that monetizing their social network will eventually kill it

Of course, a sneeky alternative might be to develop social networks that allow users to develop their own island paradises, far from the madding crowd. Handing over control of social networks, and treating them as a utility application, like email or calendar functions, might be one way to move forward. I reconnected with my old school friend Martin on MSN. Then on FriendsReunited. Then on Facebook. Now on Twitter. But he's still my old school friend and we own that relationship. Social networking sites come and go, but actual social networks - the ones that last and have some kind of real meaning - tend to persist.

And isn't that just like tourism? Holiday destinations may pass in and out of vogue. But what really makes a holiday is the company.

Posted 12 years, 5 months ago on August 21, 2009