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Social Networks: can the next generation take on Facebook?

Some Facebook status updates are more memorable than others. One status I remember fondly posted by a friend over a year ago was ‘People who post photos of their breakfast have missed the point of social networking’. The reason it has stayed with me is because I agree with him. In my opinion, Facebook has never been the appropriate platform for uploading photographs of your meals, musing about the meaning of last night’s dream, or chronicling the daily progress of your first attempt at growing micro-herbs.

Social networks Pre-Facebook (PF)

Social Networking, albeit in an almost unrecognisable form by today’s standards, has been around since the 1970’s. Platforms like Bulletin Board System allowed small communities of computer-literate individuals to share files, download games and discuss their interests, generally based around technology. Through the 80’s (CompuServe) and early 90’s (AOL) to the mid 90’s when the Internet reached full swing, classmates.com was online, enabling millions of users to connect with schoolmates in an iteration that was virtually a blueprint for what we know as a social network in 2012. Of course, it was at the turn of the millennium when social networking really came into its own with sites like FriendsterLinkedInMySpaceFacebook and, a little later, Twitter, the last two of which we have seen become the hitherto undisputed titans of social networking sites.

Look: pictures!

Facebook and Twitter grew in popularity during the late 2000s, with little disrupting the social networking landscape until late 2010 when both Pinterest and Instagram were launched. Pinterest is a photo-sharing website where members can develop and manage theme-based image collections such as events, interests, hobbies, and more; its social aspect is driven by users browsing other pinboards for inspiration to ‘re-pin’ images to their own collections or ‘like’ photos. Unlike Facebook, Pinterest is about whom users want to be, as opposed to who they are. It has seen its user base nearly double during the first quarter of 2012. Instagram is a free software program based on photo-sharing as part of a social network. Users are able to take photos, apply their choice of digital filter and then share it with other Instagram users on its own social network or to other social networks, including Facebook (which has recently purchased Instagram), Twitter or Pinterest, as well as comment on their friends’ photos.

Someone out there MUST love zombies as much as I do.

2012 has seen the rise of interest-based social networks enabling people to express their interests in original ways and offer genuine, high-value connectivity with new people they don’t already know. These are typically niche groups based around common interests. One example is ravelry.com where knitters and other yarn enthusiasts interact by posting patterns, techniques and inspiring pictures on their profile. Rather unique communities have also appeared such as the zombie-themed social network lostzombies.com. Meanwhile, one of the best known interest-based social networks is likely to be mumsnet.com aimed at building supportive parenting communities online. Mothers can post photos, discuss different topics, create support groups and forge friendships. Sites such as myautismteam.com are also based on parenting offering a space where parents of autistic children can interact.

The next generation?

A handful of sites are approaching social networking from unique angles and are growing, or are tipped to grow rapidly, in the near future. These include thumb.it, launched as a mobile app in late 2010 and currently evolving into a fully-fledged social network, pheed.com, launched this year, and zurker.com, currently pre-launch. Thumb.it allows users to get instant opinions (thumbs up vs. thumbs down) from its online community of over one million users. While the user base is relatively small by Facebook standards (which reportedly numbered one billion as of October 2012), responses to questions posted top one billion a year, with time spent on the site being close to that spent on Facebook and far beyond the time spent on Google+. Pheed allows users to create their own channel, in short, a 24 hour self-directed reality show, enabling users to share all the usual content, as well as live broadcasts. Users, who at present include a handful of celebrities, are also able to charge a subscription fee to their channel, thereby monetizing their content. Zurker’s angle is that its members will also be its owners: once you join the site, you are given ‘shares’, each worth a millionth of Zurker, with the option to buy more. The idea is that everyone involved can benefit financially from Zurker, as opposed to only a few.

Ultimately, social media is a medium for sharing; Facebook provides a space for sharing updates of our everyday lives and connecting with people we usually already know offline. Twitter gives us a forum to air our opinions and follow the thoughts of those who interest us. It can be argued that much of the success of Instagram and Pinterest has resulted from both providing platforms for sharing visual elements in a social media environment which is by and large text heavy. Similarly, the niche, interest-based networks  cropping up are vital for when your friends do not share your interests and are likely to unfriend you if you post another ‘must-see’ photo of your cat, Mr. Wobbles. Based on this, it seems as though the key to social networking success is not to try to compete head-to-head with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, but rather to identify the needs which Facebook and Twitter are not serving. Are the subtle improvements Pheed and Zurker are trying to leverage enough to threaten Facebook and Twitter?

For more information on anything in this blog post, you can contact the author penelope.mantzaris@gfk.com

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1 Comment

The question is: is there enough room for even more social networks?