Social Networks

December 4, 2011

First there was Classmates, LiveJournal, Friendster, LinkedIn and MySpace. Then Facebook comes along with a site tailored for current university students. And with it, demand for accommodating other groups like high school students, coworkers, and eventually everyone.

Facebook succeeded (and prompted a mass exodus from MySpace) because it catered to one segment of people first. Perhaps an older population who grew out of the pink sparkly gif backgrounds on MySpace. Facebook became ubiquitous.

However, Facebook hadn’t yet connected its service to a mobile environment, where Twitter thrived. Twitter existed to fill the gap of posting what you’re up to on the go, maybe solving the “problem” of friends asking, “What are you doing?” With Twitter, I know what everyone’s up to and everyone knows what I’m up to.

Of course, Facebook copies the functionality. They created status updates and made it relatively easy to post on mobile devices. But by then the mobile social network landscape had exploded into a huge variety of different apps that have their own gimmicks.

Now, there’s Tumblr, Foursquare, Yelp, Instagram, Gowalla, Google+, and Path. Yelp is for rating places. Instagram is for posting photos. Foursquare and Gowalla are for sharing your location. Google+ and Path cast a wide net.

Google+ tried to be the next Facebook, but without any reason for Facebook users to migrate. Unlike MySpace, Facebook isn’t stagnant. Google+ has no unique advantage. But, I haven’t even used Facebook for almost a year.

From today’s perspective, what does Facebook offer that’s unique? But it’s not easy to convince your family to use Twitter or another social network. Most of my extended family rarely checks their email or can’t remember their email password to begin with. It’s not easy to get someone started on “another thing.” So they’re stuck on Facebook.

Few of these networks innovate. Facebook and Twitter may try new UI ideas like pulling out a drawer or pull to refresh. Path has a radial menu. Instagram has a button in a tab bar. None of these are truly good design, they’re just UI gimmicks. Most geeks tend to be attracted to these shiny things. But normal people don’t care.

I don’t use Foursquare and Gowalla much anymore. Find My Friends helps me answer the question, “Where is my friend now?” I don’t care who the “mayor” is of the local coffee shop. Though I post to Instagram, I think it relies on cross-posting to Twitter to get attention from people I know. What’s the point of single-purpose social networks if you have to publish content from one onto another? For Instagram, not everyone (like my family) uses it enough for it to be useful on its own. Foursquare and Gowalla suffer the same problem. So often in my Twitter timeline I see people saying where they are with a link to either site.

Path realized that they couldn’t survive on their own, and intended to be a companion to Facebook as opposed to the only thing you check. But you aren’t going to succeed by relying on a competitor to exist either. Path doesn’t offer anything unique compared to Facebook, where many people already invest lots of time, which makes Path seem like a fad. Everyone’s excited about the shiny things. But I imagine it plays out similarly to Google+: everyone posts a lot early on, but ultimately no one uses it without also posting to something else.