Update June 2010:
This post was part of a research project into social media and online communication that I undertook in 2008 and was originally published on my own personal blog Ffynnonweb which continues to undertake a journey across the changing online landscape, observing and chronicling developments in social technology and noting how they impact upon online communities – with a particular focus on opportunities in education known as ‘technology enhanced learning’ (TEL).
A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA
An online social network or social networking site, as they are sometimes called, is the Web 2.0 version of the “virtual community,” a group of people who use the Internet to communicate with each other about anything and everything.
Such networks require users to join and become members before participating in the community. Members can communicate with each other by way of comment walls, forum postings, chat, instant messaging, bulletins and blogs, and these services usually provide a way for members to contact friends of other members.
Facebook and Myspace are the big names in online social networking but other, smaller social networking sites are now beginning to make an appearance.
This is a very new area of social media – even in web terms – Facebook was initially created in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg to enable students in Harvard University to connect with each other online. The term ‘Facebook’ incidentally, although initially unfamiliar to British ears, refers to the book of ‘faces’ (photos) of all members of a campus community given out by some American colleges and schools to enable new students to instantly recognise college staff.
This was expanded to include all student networks by the end of 2005 and finally it was opened to all in 2006.
It remains very popular among university and college networks and offers a simple method of almost internal communication between students themselves, their lecturers and student unions. Each educational establishment has its own network which only registered students and staff are permitted to join. Privacy options may be set so that this is kept very private or may be open to all.
All non-student users are required to join one geographical network only. This is generally the area in which one resides, allowing for social and business networking within a local area. Students may join their local geographical network as well as their education network. Users are encouraged to make contact with and become ‘friends’ of, other users in any network however, thus facilitating both local, national and international communication.
Facebook has the standard set of features of a modern social network; comment walls, videos, photos, friends, RSS activity feed, interest groups and so on, but also allows third party developers to create their own ‘apps’ or applications which integrate within the Facebook API (application programming interface). This is another example of user generated content, albeit of a more technical nature than most. These applications were originally rather facile and tended to merely offer amusement value to bored students, but they are now maturing into quite useful sophisticated additions to one’s profile and of course, the fun content is still widely available.
Additionally, developers are now creating applications (sometimes known as widgets or gadgets) to integrate other social media within Facebook and begin the process of meshing all one’s social media outlets together in a similar way to that discussed in my post Exploring Social Media – Facebook is included in the social aggregation graphic in that article for that very reason.
As noted at the end of an earlier article, Evolution to the Web, Myspace, Google and Yahoo are all now collaborating in the OpenSocial project to create similar third party applications which may be integrated into a wide range of social network sites, and Facebook is now getting in on the act with its own Facebook Open Platform.
Myspace was started in 2003 by a group of eUniverse employees who wanted to compete with the first social networking site (Friendster) launched in 2002. eUniverse was renamed Intermix Media and became the parent company of Myspace. Intermix Media was an internet marketing company which used its own employees and resources to set up Myspace and its 20 million users and email subscribers to attract users. Intermix Media (including Myspace) was sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 2005 for $580m, to become a part of Fox Interactive Media, which also owns Photobucket, (online image storage and hosting).
Friendster is still functioning as a social network but, due to a catalogue of business and management difficulties has fallen to 13th place in the list of social networks in the US and has a market share of just 0.3 percent.
Myspace feels much more commercial in tone and nature than Facebook, perhaps due to its more business-like origins and uses fairly obtrusive advertising on all its pages as its main revenue stream. This has not deterred the majority of its 110 million users from becoming enthusiastic participants in the site however.
In fact the majority of users have taken their cue from the very busy and lively tone of the myspace home pages and have delighted in filling their own pages with as many videos, slideshows and glittery animated graphics as possible.
The sheer size of such graphics has often resulted in bandwidth problems with ‘technical error pages’ occurring at certain busy times of day, but to date Myspace has not set any limits to the amount of content a user may add to their pages, in order to counteract this issue.
Myspace promotes itself as being a ‘place for friends’ and asserts that ‘myspace is for everyone’. Users have their own myspace page to which they can add music, videos, images, themes and more recently, third party applications similar to Facebook. Myspace contacts are also Friends but do not belong to networks in the way that Facebook users do.
Myspace users can join groups and forums, send private messages, write comments, blogs and bulletins and use MyspaceIM, (Myspace Instant Messenger) Chat Rooms, Myspace Mobile and text to keep in touch with friends.
Additionally, there is a large and growing entertainment section comprising music, TV, films, showbiz and games to occupy and entertain users.
Due to its extreme popularity and high profile amongst young people in particular, many up and coming bands and embryonic celebrities are using myspace as a form of free advertising and publicity to very good effect. Users enjoy having the opportunity to befriend and send messages to well-known and famous people, knowing that their comments could appear on the celebrity’s pages and that they might even receive a personal message in response. Bands can send out bulletins detailing latest tour dates and upload selected music tracks that users can add to their own pages thus offering the chance to sample new releases prior to purchase or download.
Interestingly, one can note the rise in popularity of social networking sites by looking at the Alexa.com Top Global 500 Websites list – ranked by website traffic or visits. Yahoo, Google and Youtube are the top three respectively, whilst Myspace is now the 6th ranking website with Facebook and Blogger coming in at a very respectable 7th and 8th position.
Blogger.com is presumably the most visited blogging site due to an obvious name and ease of use for newcomers to blogging. Live Journal by contrast, although still fairly popular (ranked in 56th position) is considerably more complicated to learn and although much loved by its regular users is not recommended for those new to the web. The theme of ease of use and relative popularity of the new social media sites will be explored in greater detail in forthcoming articles.
There are other social networking sites of course, but a trawl through the entire Alexa Global 500 reveals very few with such reach and popularity.
Whilst researching for these articles, several targeted networks were identified and examined, including:
TBD.com (To Be Determined) is an American-based network for persons aged 40+, (traffic rank on Alexa of 81,185 on 5th May 2008). It was noted that the policy of the network’s founder was to lightly moderate and allow discussions on all topics…religion and politics seemed to be topics that occasioned a certain amount of volatility and caused some of the more sensitive members to feel bullied and just quietly leave. It is perhaps understandable that such topics are often considered taboo on other general networks and communities where there are likely to be members with a range of different views and opinions.
At the other end of the scale there are ‘teen networks’ such as Bebo.com (traffic rank on Alexa of 108 on 5th May 2008). (popular with British schoolchildren) and Tagged.com (traffic rank on Alexa of 236 on 5th May 2008). (whose members now seem to have a broader age range than was perhaps envisaged at its start-up in 2006). This may be due to the fact that at this time, corporate buyers and venture capitalists were keen to invest money in any online social project that would be likely to attract the elusive, (but potentially highly profitable to advertisers) demographic of the under-25s. Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of Myspace, which is very popular with this age group, appeared to precipitate this trend.
MOLI.com promotes itself as a ‘next generation’ social networking site that offers members the chance to manage multiple profiles under one account. The proposed advantage of this is to be able to keep one’s business, social and family contacts separate, but easily accessible in one portal. The network is open to adults over the age of 18 only (although there is a MOLI Kids spin-off for children aged 5 and over, aimed at creating “Kidpreneurs’’ – teaching children about business in a fun and relevant way) and the specific market segment they are targeting is ‘enterprising individuals and small businesses’. Along with all the usual Web 2.0 social network features as detailed above, users have the opportunity to add ecommerce facilities for £2 per month. At present this is still a rather embryonic network, (ranked at 26,851 on Alexa on 5th May 2008), but as with all new enterprises, it could become the next myspace or disappear into oblivion.
The online social network that was chosen for a case study on social online change management – which will be discussed in future articles – is Ning.com, (ranked at 566 on Alexa on 5th May 2008).
Ning is one of the newer networks – opened to all in February 2007 after a lengthy period of testing from 2006 – but has impeccable web credentials. The company CEO and founder is Marc Andreessen – discussed in earlier articles as the creator of the Mosaic and Netscape browsers and whose blog is linked on my blogroll.
Ning has been in the tech news recently after raising $60m net on a $500 million pre-money valuation.
This has brought some criticism from various commentators and has occasioned an interesting debate about the probable ‘over-valuation’, longevity and sustainability of many of the newer social media sites and whether a second ‘dot com’ bubble is likely to burst in the near future.
Ning CEO Marc Andreessen was interviewed by the magazine Fast Company for the May 2008 issue and explained that the growth rate of Ning is based on a ‘viral expansion loop’ which is apparently what is used in all the social networking sites and may explain the phenomenal explosion of members in some of the most popular networks. The following image illustrates graphically what is meant by this concept. It is basically that of friends inviting their friends who invite their friends who invite their friends….and on and on it goes.
In the case of the Ning diagram, in some networks most members are invited by the creator (the one in the case study falls into this category). When users subsequently invite new members to join, new clusters are formed in the viral chain. Each white dot represents one user in a single network. Each starburst represents the extent and pattern of that user’s invitations to new users across all networks throughout Ning. This viral effect means that each member is equal to two new users compounded daily. In this way Ning has grown from 60,000 networks in June 2007 to 130,000 networks in May 2008, and this growth rate continues apace.
Ning operates in a slightly different manner from Facebook and Myspace in that the Ning Network itself provides the infrastructure or framework for a multitude of self-contained, individual social networks – ‘nets’ as they are rather affectionately called by Ning themselves – to be created within this framework. Each individual net has its own identity, members, groups, forums, photo albums and so on, which are quite separate from any other ‘nets’ hosted on the Ning Network. Initially an individual net or community is joined by providing a username and password and creating a ‘login’. This login also serves as a ‘Ning ID’ which can then be used to join any number of other individual communities as desired. Ning also operates the ‘Friends’ system and this is where it converges with other social networks in that Friends are held by the Ning ID and can be friends across all Ning ‘nets’.
A side-note about the online ID system is that a new OpenID is now being promoted by a number of providers in which a single secure ’sign-in’ allows access to a wide range of different social media, thus increasing security and convenience for users for whom creating and remembering multiple logins is becoming an increasing nuisance. Already, OpenID has been adopted by over 10,000 websites and this figure is increasing all the time.
An earlier example of such an ID is that of an MSN passport which could be used to sign up for a number of different MSN communities which were very similar in tone and nature to that of Ning networks, but without the ‘Friends’ aspect, which does seem to be a very ‘web 2.0’ concept. The only real difference is that the technology has moved on, but the fundamental principle of belonging to a community, whether of ‘interest’ or of ‘practice’ remains the same.
Thus far, this series of articles has focussed on the changing technologies that have enabled people to communicate with others electronically, irrespective of geographical location. However, online communication isn’t just about the media used, of course.
In fact – particularly in this latest era when the focus is very much upon ‘social media’ and ‘user generated content’ – it is more about the people who are actually using these technologies than ever before and what is sometimes forgotten, is the fact that not everyone embraces change with as much enthusiasm as the ‘early adopters’ those ‘technologically able’ users who are often referred to as the ‘movers and shakers’ on the web. Maybe one or two of you are actually reading this article now!
This area particularly interests me personally and will be specifically addressed in future articles when change management as it relates to the online environment is explored in the case study referred to above.
Update June 2010: A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA