Social apps are far more complex than single-user apps. I wonder to what
extent a lack of social psych research input into the design of these apps
-- the most popular ones having been designed by college undergrads -- is
causing their popularity to plateau? To me, this suggests a discontinuity
similar to the one that occurred when command line interfaces were displaced
by GUIs. Every GUI out there can trace its origins to the the
multi-disclipinary, thoroughly grounded research conducted at Xerox PARC. I
think it's possible to go only so far by the seat of one's pants. Without
GUIs or at least the bastardized compromises that were delivered on the DOS
platform in the mid-1980's, PC use would have plateaued in much the way the
social apps are slowing down now.
The next phase of Social App development might require Sproull, Kiesler,
Turoff, Hiltz and others to re-emerge from the shadows. -murli
*Shhh!* Can you hear a hiss? That's the sound of naughty facts deflating the
social networking balloon a tad.
Whisper it, but numbers from web analytics outfit comScore have confirmed
what the chatter in bars and cafes has been saying for months - people are,
just, well, *bored* of social networks.
The average length of time users spend on all of the top three sites is on
the slide. Bebo, MySpace and Facebook all took double-digit percentage hits
in the last months of 2007. December could perhaps be forgiven as a seasonal
blip when people see their real friends and family, but the trend was
The story year-on-year is even uglier for social networking advocates. Bebo
and MySpace were both well down on the same period in 2006 - Murdoch's site
by 24 per cent. Facebook meanwhile chalked up a rise, although way off its
mid-2007 hype peak when you couldn't move for zeitgeist-chasing "where's the
Facebook angle?" stories in the press and on TV.
That "user engagement" is dropping off (page impression growth is merely
slowing) should be of particular concern for the sales people struggling to
turn these free services into profit-making businesses. In the age of tabbed
browsing, how long people stick around is particularly key for "interactive"
sites, where people aren't attracted by useful information, but by
And as we've noted here before, if the cash isn't raining down on you you
need a "phenomenal" growth line to sell credulous reporters and investors.
Expansion into non-English speaking countries is viewed as such a panacea
for the increasingly obvious slowdown US social networks are suffering (see
Facebook's trawl for translation
The fact is that web users people are just as fickle in Leipzig as they are
in London, and it seems to us that a delayed Friends Reunited (remember
that?) effect is kicking in.
When Friends Reunited enjoyed its "phenomenal" growth period people would
join, log in maybe a dozen times, catch up with those class mates they
wanted to, then forget about it.
On Facebook behaviour seems much the same; join, accumulate dozens of
semi-friends, spy on a few exes for a bit, play some Scrabulous, get bored,
then get on with your life, occasionally dropping in to respond to a message
or see some photos that have been posted.
Similarly, once the novelty of MySpace wears off, most people only stop by
to check out bands or watch videos.
They've basically developed a way to add a penny-scraping coda to the
Friends Reunited pattern, thanks to diversions that have been enabled by
broadband. The biggest difference is that Friends Reunited made easy profit
because it didn't give all its features away to users for free.
In the meantime, expect spinners to work on massaging the comScore figures,
and happy-clappy bloggers to leap to social networking's defence by claiming
the falls are sign of the market maturing, and of fierce competition. They
could be right, but it still means that the individual business are not the
goldmine their greedy backers slavered over.
Despite his endearing deployment of rubber sandals in public, Mark
Zuckerberg is yet to convince marketeers - the only people who are ever
going to pay him for access to Facebook - that the popularity of his site
heralds the next 100 years of media.
And the "widget economy", where developers cobble together web applications
in the hope of grabbing their own slice of the riches social networking's
massive personal data warehouses
Well the business model for RockYou pretty much sums it up. The startup,
that owns the number two Facebook App "Fun Wall", only sells advertising to
other Facebook App developers.
"I remember a time, long long ago, when tech companies spent their own
venture capital on each other, so revenues were all booked from the same
small pool of money. Yeah, as I recall, it didn't end well."
We're not suggesting that social networking sites are totally useless or are
going to disappear anytime soon (Friends Reunited is still around? Who
knew!) - they're a boon for prying journalists and recruiters for sure, and
damn it, Scrabulous *is* a good game. But today's shocking confirmation that
their "phenomenal" growth isn't impervious to human nature does make the
$15bn valuation Microsoft slapped on Facebook when it paid $240m for 1.6 per
cent equity seem even more preposterous, if it were possible.
It's an oft-quoted fact among social networking sceptics, but it's worth
reminding ourselves for perspective that Ford - y'know, the massive
international automotive conglomerate with massive physical assets,
customers who stay loyal over decades and truly global reach - is valued at
less than $15bn on Wall Street. (R)