Phil Sim

Web, media, PR and… footy

No network can be all things to all people

Earlier this week I spoke on a panel session held by AIMIA on the topic of online PR and one of the questions asked related to Open Social as a social platform.

Co-incidently, earlier I’d been discussing a similiar topic with co-panelist Michael Henderson and our moderator Steven Noble regarding where social platforms were headed.

My response regarding Open Social was that I didn’t think it had legs. Like many I was initially excited by the idea, but if these kinds of things haven’t got some level of traction earlier in the peace they just won’t fly and Google simply doesn’t have the power in the social networking space to impose its will on anyone.

My conversation with Michael and Stephen related to Facebook. I commented that I was visiting Facebook a lot less these days and so were many of my friends so the utility of the site was quickly diminishing for me. Michael disagreed saying it was still very much his primary platform. Today, I noticed a twitter from Mark Jones, who noted that right now he would check Twitter first, email second and RSS third where as a year ago it was the other way around. And then you have the A-list folk like Duncan Riley and Robert Scoble who have been sucked into the Friendfeed realm.

Another observation from the Online PR panel was in relation to blogging. Hendo stated the belief in his presentation that blogging was on the decline. I tend to think that as the likes of WordPress and Typepad enable more social networking functionality that blogs are going to have a renaissance as a central aggregation point for many people’s online existence. And while I”m here I’ll point to a blog on the Inqusitr arguing that LinkedIn is really the undervalued social networking property. Oh, and there was this piece on TechCrunch noting that MySpace was still the dominant platform around music.

What all this seems to add up to is that there is never going to be a single, one-site-to-rule-them-all winner in the social networking space. I think Facebook has enough critical mass that it will be the fallback option for a large number of people. The place you go to if you want to find somebody and probably a destination that most people will visit every once and a while but with the fizz dying down in relation to Facebook as an application, I don’t think a generic platform can deliver enough utility to be all things to all people.

It seems to me you can compare social networking sites to telephone directories. You’ve got your main directory (so in Australia it’s the Yellow/White Pages) but then you have a whole host of directories about the place for greater, levels of depth and information (ie greater specialist utility).

Of course, there is the problem of data portability and interoperability – who wants to update six different site statuses for instance? But at this stage it looks like all of these different networks are going to be held together by a kludge of hacks, APIs and web services.

At MediaConnect over the last 24 hours we’ve just started turning on integration with Twitter, Facebook, blogs and email. We recognise while it would be nice for our site to be the be-all, end-all for all our users that’s never going to be the case and so it’s critical that you play with as many different web services as makes sense. I think the only web model going forward is to offer both a platform, which offer maximum utility for your core users and then to integrate and make your service/information available on as many different platforms as you can. Right now, I’d like for us to have presences on our rich application platform, on a lighter, html version of the platform, a mobile platform, as an email-driven application and with almost full-functionality available from sites like iGoogle and netvibes.

We’ve had plenty of internal discussions about the merits of trying to keep people locked into our primary platform as much as possible, but I just don’t think thats the smart way forward. I think you need to accept that no two-people work the same way, plus we all have a legacy of various applications we’re in some way tied to. So you just need to play with as much as possible as well as possible. I think this has been a major factor to the success of Rememberthemilk. It plays with almost everything – so there’s a good chance that no matter what combination of platforms you’re likely to use, you can somehow get at your todo list.

In the end, you just need to remember that your core value proposition is the utility you offer your audience/community, not your interface. As all of these sites start to talk to each other, users are going to make choices and its likely going to be based on interface and familiarity as much as it is features or services. They are going to have to invest quite a bit of work to make their chosen interface work with the various services they would like to integrate with and so expecting all your users to give all that up is a big, big ask and will be too much for many users.

I think most people will have three to five social networks they use regularly – Facebook + a social network or two based around their hobbies + 1 or 2 work-based networks. You’ll have conversations on all of these sites but you’ll probably only have a maximum of two that are your main expression points and which you come to consider as being your online identity. There will be enough interaction between them that you’ll easily slide between them but not enough integration that you can give them all up and pull them into a single aggregation point (and who really wants that, right?).

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