Social networks: the next new new thing

So now online social networking is the next new new thing (to borrow a turn of phrase from the talented business journalist Michael Lewis).

Web-based social network sites are increasingly surfacing in news and business reports: you'll find lots of coverage of Facebook.com, MySpace.com, Friendster, Tagged.com, Linked-in, and, (depending on your definition of a social network), Flickr, YouTube and even Wikipedia.

There is some hype, reminiscent of Web 1.0 in its breathlessness: Fast Company magazine headlines a June story: "The Network Unbound: How TagWorld and other next-generation social networks could feed your business–and maybe even change the world."

But there is clearly something more than buzz going on; this isn't a 21st century version of CB radio. Rupert Murdoch owns MySpace.com. There are reports that media giant Viacom offered $2 billion (NOTE: "billion" is not a typo) for Facebook.com, a site which was started some two years ago by Harvard University students, and was rebuffed! Even the former actor (and soccer player) Andrew Shue has jumped aboard what has been called Web 2.0, hawking ClubMom.com, which "offers mothers a platform to start businesses."

That is not to suggest these social network sites will continue to grow at their current rapid rate. (Beware trend analysis. Elvis impersonators surfaced at a breath-taking clip in the 1990s; had the exponential ersatz Elvis trends continued, every fifth person in America would be wearing sunglasses and singing "You ain't nothing but a hound dog.")

What might slow the social network surge?

For starters, there are only so many hours in the day. As alluring as these virtual communities can be, there is a burn-out factor to consider. Just as many have started, and abandoned blogs, there will be a natural attrition. Look for fragmentation, as well, as some sites grow too large and users seek a narrower connection around specialized interests.

There are also questions about the boundaries for privacy, confidentiality and member authenticity.

It's definitely a bit of a Wild West today; students using Facebook have learned that risque postings, including photographs, can come back to haunt them as college administrators, campus police, potential employers and other outsiders peruse personal web pages.

A number of varsity and club sports teams (Northwestern, Wake Forest, Catholic University, Elon and Quinnipiac) have been embarrassed by initiation photos floating in Webspace and posted on Badjocks.com, photos often "borrowed" from Facebook and other social network sites. As Elon athletic director Alan White told USA Today: "Once these things get out, there is no such thing as privacy.You are vulnerable. It can explode on you, and it can be all over the universe."

There is also the issue of member authenticity, which is often linked to safety concerns. How do you really know who is who in an online environment? How to keep the online wolves from the sheep? Myspace.com has had to confront the problem of older sexual predators invading its largely teenage community–it has appointed a security czar and is deleting profiles of under-age users (those under 14).

Future social historians will no doubt turn to a recent news release by a venture called Matecheck.com, which seeks to verify the bona fides (especially the marital status) of men joining online dating sites, as a glimpse into what America 2006 was like:

“As the online dating industry matures, a need for a service like MateCheck is crucial,” notes Andrew Maltin, MateCheck’s CEO and Co-Founder. “Think of MateCheck as the E-Bay rating system of dating,” says Maltin. “Would you buy products from someone who has received negative feedback? Well, you certainly shouldn’t trust your heart to a man with a negative DateScore.”

Maltin's comments provoke other thoughts: as American capitalism commercializes social networks, will members "trust their heart" to faceless, profit-seeking corporations? An overly-commercial approach may very well diminish the sense of community these networks have engendered.

Do these online social networks offer more than, to use Fast Company's phrase "feeding business"? Can they "change the world" as potential political players? Joe Trippi and Howard Dean built a presidential campaign around that notion; Moveon.org and other lefty groups apparently believe that their online social networks will transform electoral politics.

Some skepticism seems in order. In the 2004 presidential election it was old-fashioned, physical social networks in the form of Christian churches in Florida and Ohio who turned out the vote and delivered the key electoral votes to George W. Bush. (Political correspondent Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine filed a brilliant story, "Who Lost Ohio?", which recounted the GOP's reality-based get-out-the-vote (GOTV) success on the ground in Ohio).

Perhaps that will change for the 2006 Congressional elections, or in 2008, and the virtual will trump the real. But I'd argue that we are still one generation away from any translation of online social networks into political clout. And when and if that transformation occurs, I would not assume that it will take a left-of-center slant.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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