Social Networking in 2010

9th July

The web is awash with online social networking sites ranging from those targeting a very broad audience group (such as Facebook, Bebo, Twitter, Flickr) to more niche communities (such as LinkedIn, A Small World, Couchsurfing).

User generated content dominates the scene by forming the source of power for popular social networking sites as well as giving users power to create their space.

An example of this is the power source of Twitter being the high participation rate creating a wealth of 'content' that entices users to join. Meanwhile users are able to engage with that space in their own way so a variety of causes and events have used Twitter as a vehicle for connection – including the use of hashtags to create momentum for a cause such as the protest against the #IranElection.

The extent to which personal information is freely offered by users to social networking sites – in particular Facebook – creates a different level of information that now competes with the more uni-directional medium of websites. In fact Facebook seems to be throwing down the gauntlet to über-power Google by looking to change the shape of web search from the mathematically based algorithm for relevance to a aggregation of personalised recommendations form your own community. User generated content is not even just the explicit information users are providing about their birthdate, high school and relationship status but also extends to getting a full picture of who your friends are, the music you like, books you recently read, writers you are a fan of, political causes you believe in, restaurants you have eaten at and rated and on and on. Whether a search of this type of content is enough to take the masses away from the power of the current search engines remains to be seen.

While the bank of user generated content continues to accrue exponentially, social networking sites dance between all out exploitation of content by advertiser access to demographically segmented groups and respecting the privacy of the users who bring the power source to their medium. Different ways of exploiting user generated content becomes the challenge as users have outgrown the traditional advertising revenue model and vote with their feet when such approaches are made too obviously. Some more innovative examples of exploiting the collective have come through sites such as Threadless where users submit t-shirt designs, other users vote for the designs and everyone can buy the t-shirt with the web designer getting a cut of the revenue. This approach has been called Crowdsourcing – the use of a community approach to completing a task you would normally pay someone to do. Other businesses are also adopting this approach with varying levels of success for such things as raising money to make a documentary or even to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The agile pervasive user

How do users engage with their chosen social networks? With the amount of data around, there are many ways to slice and dice the demographics of social networking. You may like to know the average age of users on the major social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Myspace and LinkedIn; there is data available on the overlap of users across major Social Networking sites. Statistics abound – so choose carefully!

What can be assumed is that with breadth of online social networking sites available users have many options for tailoring their own package of social networking.

Some may keep it simple and stick to one site where they have strong ties to their particular community. Some single medium users may try other networks by creating their profile but then leave them inactive. Some users may set themselves up on many different networks using them in specific ways – e.g. Facebook for family and friend networks, LinkedIn for business networks, MySpace for their band networks. Some users may set up multiple profiles within a network such as Twitter to manage their communication with different networks. There are also many applications for managing multiple profiles on multiple networks

Location based social networking

Location based social networking emerged out of a desire to connect to a geographical local community and is developing into a way for local businesses to reach out to the community. One such site is Foursquare whose 'game' like approach had users 'checking in' to places they had visited and anointing people as 'mayors' if they were the most frequent person to 'check ini at a particular location. Location based sites have been able to take advantage of the improvements in mobile technology to utilise GPS to create such experiences as offering user recommended locations when a user checks in to a nearby place.

The future of such location based social networking is, similar to the rest of social networking, tied into how best to mine the data being offered by users to create a personalised and engaging experience while respecting the privacy of the users themselves.

Engaging in Social Networks

The primary concern for many social networking sites is about how best to monetize these networks to benefit the operators of the sites while ensuring that users' privacy and experience are honoured for the value that they provide the networks.

The question many businesses and organisations ask themselves how they can take advantage of these social networking sites for the benefit of their own enterprise.

The answer to this question lies in the time and resources that each organisation can put towards maintaining the freshness of the content on their social networking profiles. Certainly most social networking sites have created tools that enable organisations to utlise a common space to interact with customers/members/collaborators. Some examples are

  • a member based organisation that uses a Facebook page to rally people to a cause and generate comment on the cause.
  • Organisers of, and delegates at, a conference utilise a relevant hashtag to post their experience of sessions, workshops, speakers and lunch!
  • Recruitment agents that use LinkedIn to advertise a job that's landed on their desk

An efficient and effective way to engage in Social Networks is to find ways of inserting your organisation onto the pages of your members or customers.  This is done by integrating such apps as Facebook Connect - allowing users to login to their Facebook account from your site and/or indicate that they "Like" your website/blog/article and have a "Like this" link posted to the reader's Facebook Wall.  Another integrative tool is the ShareThis widget which can be placed on your pages to encourage word of mouth recommendations from individuals to their personal online networks through social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, Blogger, MySpace, Digg, AIM Share, Stumble Upon, and Live.

Building Your Own Community

Given the popularity of established social networking sites why would you build your own community? The reality test comes in being able to convince others of the why they can't miss out on your party! The For this reason utilising existing social networking sites is a great way to gauge whether you have the critical mass to justify your own.

The idea of a community of followers ready and willing to engage in a space created by you, your company, organisation or cause is undeniably attractive.

The responsibilities that come with building your own community include allowing community members ways of making the space their own, injecting stimulating discussing and ways to engage, promoting respectful community behaviour. Another responsibility is to listen to community members – once people make themselves home in a community they will make demands on the renovations and changes you make to the site. An example of this is when Facebook users create pages to indicate their dissatisfaction with changes to page layouts and privacy changes.

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