By WINSTON ROSS
Facebook is for photos of the kids, Twitter for blurting out pearls of marketing wisdom to his 613 followers, Linkedin for electronic schmoozing with potential business partners, Myspace for teenagers and rock bands.
Jascha Kaykas-Wolff understands as well as anybody what each of the Big Four social networking sites means to him. It’s whoever can figure out a way to combine all these bookmarks into one place, so he’s not leaping from one cyberspace hub to the next; whoever can help him root out new groups of potential clients for Webtrends, the Portland, Ore.,-based company at which he works as vice president of marketing — that person may have discovered the next big thing in social networking, while at the same time relegating some current online behemoth into Friendster oblivion (remember Friendster?)
Such is the dynamic, even frantic world of communication on the web in 2009. In January, the blogosphere, social media nerds and your co-workers could not shut up about Twitter, even if they were only complaining about the frequency of banal 140-character updates from people who thought it worth sharing with the world that they’d just returned from lunch.
By April, Twitter had nearly 20 million unique visitors, up from 1.5 million a year before that. Now the web is abuzz with speculation that Twitter is nothing more than a passing fad, a theory supported by the latest round of Nielsen research that shows 60 percent of its users don’t return after their initial signup.
Maybe that news will make Facebook less desperate to catch up to Twitter. In its own bid to avoid obsolescence, Facebook cranked out a jarring revamp to the way people use the site in March, moving this over here and that over there in what seemed to some outraged users to be an attempt to copy Twitter’s fluid, micro-blogging format and to others just a way to mess with their minds.
The thinking among social networking entrepreneurs seems to be this: change, quickly, or die. Already, bloggers around the world are proclaiming the imminent demise of Myspace — a site that once dominated all chatter about social networking — even though the reports of that demise are, at least statistically, greatly exaggerated. Myspace still sees 55 million unique visitors each day.
“Nothing bad happened to Myspace; it’s still one of the most popular social networks on the web. There’s a class division, a stereotype that Myspace is trashy,” said Justin Kistner, a Portland, Ore.-based social media strategist. “But most of America is trashy.”
Changes in social networking come at breakneck speed, and the spoils clearly go to they who can adapt the quickest. But what is the next Twitter? Will it kill off the old Twitter? What’s the difference between a fad and a long-term trend in a medium whose “storefronts” can disappear as quickly as a site administrator decides it’s time to pull the plug? What do we want from these web sites today, even if we don’t know we want it?
The answer to those questions could mean money out of thin air for the next savvy entrepreneur. Myspace may have lost 9 million unique visitors in the period between April 2008 and 2009, but its founders had already walked away from the site with $580 million, after selling it in 2005 to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. There’s serious cash involved in the business of connecting people on the web.
But how? To this point, the tack most developers seem to take is to create huge amounts of hype, draw in millions of users and then figure out how to make money off of it. This is a delicate dance, because what sells is also what sells out. If you haven’t checked Myspace in awhile, you might be surprised at how bombarded you get by hi-def trailers for Terminator Salvation or a push to check out Electrik Red’s “exclusive” album premier. The login is almost an afterthought.
“A lot of the things these sites have to do to make money are the same kinds of things that drive users away,” said Ian Muir, a web developer with Manchester, N.H.-based Amplified Studios. “Part of the reason Twitter has so many users is there’s no ads, no noise. They’re also not making any money. Facebook, as they’ve brought in more ads, they make more money per user but their growth rate has slowed way down.”
The challenge, say experts in the field, is for social networking sites to keep users loyal, adapt to what they want and turn a profit, without any one of those goals mucking up the other. That in mind, here’s what you can expect in the next wave of pokes and tweets and annoying quizzes:
One site to rule them all: Or at least, check them all. Tweetdeck, an application that lets you scan Twitter and Facebook feeds in the same glance, is a start in this direction, as is Friendfeed, a real-time aggregator that combines news feeds, social networking updates and blog entries into one platform. OpenID looks promising too, in that it lets people create a single login and password to gain access to myriad different sites. But there’s not really a widely used monster aggregator program or site or application out there at this point that lets you pull up one page and see on it everything you want to see at once: your email, your tweets, your favorite Newsweek correspondents, etc.
“It’s definitely social plumbing,” Kistner said. “The universal communications client that exists a layer above Facebook and text messaging.”
Smart filters — Twitter lets people barf out 140 characters to as many people as are willing to listen. What it doesn’t do is allow the tweeter to send messages about the Cubs to a subgroup that only cares about the Cubs, a dispatch from the Britney Spears concert to followers who couldn’t afford tickets. The next Twitter will use technology to allow sects of the population to isolate themselves and talk only to each other.
“What we want right now is a way to more intelligently sort through everything,” said Caroline McCarthy, who writes about social media and digital advertising for CNET News. “I think a lot of the big developments are going to come in the space of technology used to filter all this information.”
Community puberty — That’s Kistner’s term for the growing pains of a social networking site. This is a field once dominated by America Online, then Geocities, then Yahoo, then Friendster. As the pre-eminent devices of putting people in touch with each other, all of these efforts have gone extinct. But that’s not to suggest that current social networking giants are doomed. At some point, suggests Brett Atwood, assistant professor of journalism and new media at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, people will decide they’re tired of signing up for new web sites. They’ve got 1,000 pictures and 500 friends on Facebook, which they spent years accumulating, and the same kind of equity built up with Linkedin, Twitter and Myspace. If the existing powerhouses can continue to refine their offerings to make users at least marginally happy, they could survive indefinitely. Most people still buy software from Microsoft and conduct web searches via Google, even years after those companies mounted their respective thrones. At some point, it’s possible for a site to get too big to topple.
“Once you have that critical mass of community, people invested in the creation of original content, they become nested,” Atwood said. “It becomes more difficult to unseat the leader.”
There are also plenty of opportunities to expand a web site’s reach abroad. Friendster may have gotten outgunned in the U.S., but it’s still huge overseas, with 90 million users. Ninety percent of its traffic comes from Asia.
“In China, Facebook isn’t among the top 10 of their social networks,” said David Alston, vice president of marketing and community at Radian 6, a social media monitoring firm based in New Brunswick, Canadaa. “In Brazil and India, they’re much more into Orkut.”
Platform-free networking — The next time you log into Etrade to buy some stock, head to Amazon for a book or iTunes for an album, imagine if what popped up alongside the product description was a list of your friends who’d bought the same thing. Did they lose money on the stock? Stop reading the book halfway through? Pass the album onto their teenage daughter?
Maybe you want to know more about what made them love or hate that particular online offering, and since they’re available for an instant messenger conversation at that very moment, you can click a button and ask them. Welcome to social networking everywhere. Every web site compiles profile information from every one of its customers, then uses the Facebook-like technology to bring us all together, the way you might bump into someone you know in a supermarket.
“Social communities aren’t going to be something you go visit,” said Steve Rubel, senior vice president and director of insights at Edelman Digital, which advises clients on technology, online and consumer trends. “They’ll be embedded into every online experience. That’s where the next war will be fought. The next social network is the web.”
The same kind of ubiquity can come about with the help of email providers such as Google, Yahoo and MSN. For years, they’ve been storing up the addresses and other contact information of millions of people. With just the right release of that data into cyberspace, this whole concept of ubiquitous social networking can be pulled off even more seamlessly. Google search for something, anything, and if anyone you know has some kind of connection to it, you’ll find out, pronto.
Something different altogether. Of course, it’s entirely possible that some completely newfangled concept will emerge in social networking that not even the cleverest, future-predictingest soothsayers can now imagine. Social networking for dogs? Social networking and time travel? Scratch ‘n Sniff social networking?
Plurk.com is a Twitter spinoff that allows users to limit messages to certain groups of friends. Jyte.com lets users make “claims,” like “I’d rather have a goat in office than our current president,” and others can vote on whether that claim is valid.
The appeal behind a brand-new site is pretty simple: it’s not already dominated by Ashton Kutcher and Oprah.
“Any time you have a new community, there’s a chance for you to be the king of it,” Kistner said. “It’s hard to be king of an existing, established community. You’re not going to unseat Ashton.”
The key is to tap into what people want, McCarthy said.
“We may not see what the next big thing is until it’s already been out for months, evolving under our feet,” she said.
Trashy America is always eager to embrace a new distraction.