My universal theory of social networks goes something like this.
There’s some deep part of your brain that instinctively wants to make connections with other human beings. Even when you do something as superficial as click a button on a website to confirm that somebody you’ve already known for ten years is your friend, that bit of your brain experiences a little ‘ping’ of happiness.
This is why social networks like Friendster, MySpace and Facebook work. Once they’ve tricked you into signing up, you have to find everyone else you know who is also on the service and connect to them. When you run out of people to connect to, you have to tell everyone you know to get an account so you can connect to them again. Because it’s fun. And it’s fun because people are fun, even if they’re people you see every day, and have no need to interact with over the Internet.
Eventually you run out of real friends to add. At this point you have three options:
- Find some other feature of the site to keep you logging in
- Gradually lose interest, returning every month or two to see if anyone else has added you
- Radically lower your standards
You can pretty much chart the mass-desertion of Friendster’s initial userbase on these axes. Lacking a compelling application beyond building your network, Friendster’s initial population became divided into those who were just wandering around looking for complete strangers to add to their friends lists, and people who were deserting the service in droves because it had become nothing more than a way for strangers to bug them.
A social network without a compelling reason to bring people back to the site will have a massive churn rate, relying on a constant influx of new blood still in the network-building phase. As such, social networks are prone to huge and sudden shifts in demographic as trends in which site is ‘hot’ change unevenly in different areas. (See also, Orkut)
(For a year or two, I maintained a Friendster account with two friends, just because I feel obliged to at least try out every new net.trend. Recently I instituted a new policy of logging on every so often and approving any new request I’d received. This process has led me to understand that the population of the site is now heavily skewed towards South-East Asian jailbait)
Therefore, for social networking sites to maintain a stable population, they have to find some compelling application beyond just building a network.
The good news is that there are a trillion such applications. Some of them are so compelling that there are entire websites built upon them — I’m thinking of Flickr, Livejournal, or even Instant Messaging as a whole — where the social networking aspect is secondary to the application itself. Conversely, it’s no coincidence that at all social networking sites include some form of support for blogging, short text messages and photo sharing1.
Social networks are graphs of interest and trust. As such they are natural conduits for the flow of information2. Anyone looking to write social software has to either build their own network from scratch, or build on top of someone else’s. This is why Facebook’s API is such a smart (and successful) move. Facebook give away access to a valuable resource, their users, and in return third party application developers provide more reasons for users to keep coming back to Facebook’s site. Sure, 95% of the applications are dinky little toys, and the implementation sucks in so many ways3, but overall it’s the only thing that can stave off Facebook’s otherwise inevitable crash.
1 On the other hand, I could write an entirely new essay explaining why the core application provided by LinkedIn provides neither practical nor entertainment value, and the site’s popularity can only be the result of a mass delusion.
2 And like any public information flow on the Internet, they are ripe for abuse. The first, clumsy social networking hacks are already being exploited, and it’s only a matter of time before some spammer cottons on to the simple fact that if someone is listed as your friend on MySpace, you’re more likely to read an email with their name in it.
3 Firstly it encourages my friends to spam me, which is not really a good way to maintain a friendship. Secondly, I can’t interact with an application on someone else’s profile without signing up to the application myself, and most of the time I’m too curmudgeonly to do so.