Future of social networking looks bleak

Social networkers have taken over the Internet – or so it would seem. Everywhere you look these days there’s something about social networking. It’s the latest online “fad” and in its current form, it will not last.

Currently, Internet marketers see social networking sites as vital to their business. Nearly half of them placed material on social networking sites to drive traffic or to sell products, according to a report from eMarketer. It’s all so reminiscent of ten years ago when everyone was saying “thank you” for the development of banner advertising. Marketers were telling us that this was the way to go, the future for marketing. Now what has happened to banner adverts – they are largely ignored by Internet users.

So, now we’re told to say a big “thank you” for social networking. Indeed, you’ll find reports, articles, blogs and so on saying social networking is what the Internet was invented for. Indeed, even on this site you’ll find I’ve written about the immense value of social networking. But things are changing.

Currently, MySpace gets 80% of all social networking traffic. Facebook gets 11% and the thousands of other social networking sites, including Ecademy, Bebo and so on, have to share the other 9% between them. But there is a problem with social networking; it’s just too general.

In the physical world you don’t socialise or hang out with just anybody. You form small, distinct groups. You find people at work, in your neighbourhood or in the clubs and societies you join as a result of your hobbies and personal interests. What people do not do in the offline world is visit an enormous pub in the centre of town, put up a sign saying “here I am” with a whole list of things they are interested in.

But that’s what the likes of MySpace, Facebook and Ecademy do. So, if they run counter to what we would normally do, why are they so successful? Novelty is one reason; financial support in the case of MySpace is another; and the fact that the Internet is full of “early adopters” willing to try out new things.

However, look at what is happening “behind the scenes” of these sites. Most of the activity on Ecademy, for instance, is in the “clubs” which are devoted to special interests. Within Facebook, most activity is within the special groups, such as regional groupings (your neighbourhood). Much the same is true for MySpace which has thousands of sub groups in specialist areas.

What is clearly happening online is what already happens online – people gravitate to like minded people with shared interests. We don’t have “general” clubs in the offline world and so it’s no surprise that in the online world these general social networking sites are developing along the specialised route.

However, why go to a general social networking site just to then find the specialist group you wanted in the first place? Why not just go to the specialist group? If you want to play tennis, for instance, you probably join the local tennis club rather than go to the local pub in the hope that you may find some tennis players. An example of what happens online successfully is Bounty. This is a social networking site exclusively for pregnant women. It is hugely successful and allows mums-to-be to discuss all the things they find important and valuable. However, some of those women will be interested in running their own business, so they may join another social network devoted to women in business, for instance.

People are capable of separating their interests and joining networks in each exclusive area. This is what we have been doing for thousands of years, so there’s no reason to suspect that will change in the online future world.

So what does this mean for what’s going on in social networking at the moment? It suggests that the future of social networking is in what you might call “vertical networking”. In other words, instead of one amorphous mass of networking, people will join dozens of separate, distinct online networks devoted to their special interests. That means the future for generalised social networking does not look good.

And if you thought this wasn’t already happening, pop over to Ning. This is the place where people are creating their own vertical social networking groups devoted to any special interest they like. So if you want your own social network on your special interest, that’s the place to go.

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