Blue Screen Of Duds

Where the alter ego of codelust plays

Posts Tagged ‘Facebook

Social networks are bound to fail in the long run

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While they seem to be the toast of the online world, it is only a matter of time before the social networking websites start losing their sheen and the crazy valuations they command these days.

The lifecycle of social networking activities on individual websites can be mapped under the following heads:

Insertion: Social networks are very much like nightclubs and if you have ever been a regular clubber, you would know that not all nightclubs are created equally.

The newer and fancier clubs are where most of the cool crowd will always head for, while the less exciting ones go away pretty much unnoticed or end up serving niches that never scales up either in terms of traction or in terms of revenue.

More often than not the case for being at a new club is to be one of the first ones to get in, granting those who manage it a feeling of exclusivity. And at least in the early days insertion is much more important than the stages that follow after it.

You can see the same behavior in the case of social networks. Both Orkut and Facebook have benefited enormously from the same exclusivity as a result of their restricted entry policies in the early days.

Replication: Once an individual joins a social network, he/she wanders about replicating connections they already have in real life. There are exceptions to this behaviour, especially in the dating, younger demographic. Quite a bit of the initial spurt of activity on social networks is just this – replication of your existing social graph.

Discovery: While almost every online social network is similar to the others, they also have their own little unique ways of doing things. For instance, you “scrap” on Orkut, “poke” and “banter” on Facebook. Everyone has their own little unique way of doing things and these days, with the introduction of various platforms, there are also truckloads of applications, alongside new users to discover on the social networking sites.

The determinants

Degree of participation: Each of the above three points have degree of participation numbers attached to it. Growth on social networks slows down primarily when the number of people being inserted (new registrations, invites) decline. Secondarily, growth also slows down when the replication is mostly done with as everyone you know is already on the network by then.

To counter this, social networks may try and induce more participation from users by rewarding more participation (like a more frequently updated social stream). This can end up being a counter-productive approach, with high risk of alienating the less-frequent users.

Degree of fulfillment: All three factors can also be measured in terms of fulfillment a user gets from them. When you join, (the insertion stage) has a high degree of fulfillment attached to it, which declines over time when it is not that cool anymore, it is not that new anymore.

Replication also has high fulfillment in the initial days, getting more people on to the same platform etc. But it comes at a price. After a while, everyone you know is on the same network.

Moreover, everyone being there also deprives you of privacy. With time, you need increasing degrees of effort to maintain your profile. It is not uncommon to see users withdrawing more and more from doing things which is reflected in the public activity streams.

Gradually, everything moves to the inbox and private messages, which is a need that is already excellently served by email.

Discovery also has a high degree of initial fulfillment with users finding their way around the new websites, exploring new applications, features and people. Eventually, users get bored of using the applications and they have already added most of the people they have wanted to discover and add, resulting in falling rates of fulfillment as time progresses.

The Eventual Failure

As demonstrated above, there is little use case for sustained high levels of usage on online social networks. Over time, it is hard to battle inactivity and increasing levels of boredom for existing users.

To offset this churn, and also to prop up their stellar growth numbers, it is imperative that these websites keep adding a steady or an increasing number of new users all the time. But that number is a finite figure, determined by the number of people who use the internet and not all of them are going to sign up with social networks.

Unlike a Digg, Gmail or a news website, the value addition accrued from sustained usage of social networks is comparitively low and the need that it addresses is fairly artificial.

Another major issue of privacy and it is an issue without having to bring something like Beacon into the equation. If you do not fine-grain access control on your social stream, it is hard to figure out who all are getting to see what all parts of your life.

And if you do fine-grain access controls on social streams, it is either too much of work or it ends up being a better deal to use specialized services for it (email for communication, Flickr/Smugmug/Picasa for photo sharing, WordPress.com for blogging and so on).

Lastly, advertising inventory on social networks has till date been a major failure. Google tripped on the expectations it had from the Myspace.com inventory, advertising on Facebook or any other social network has not taken off much and the click through rates have been pretty poor on them. Unlike search or news, users don’t get on social networks to find ancillary information related to their activities. You don’t have to try too hard to imagine why there is not much context to one person poking another. It is, well, just a poke at the end of the day.

Eventually, even nightclubs need to reposition and redefine themselves every couple of years to stay in the game. Unfortunately, that is not an option that online social networks get to have and that is what will kill them

Written by shyam

March 10, 2008 at 10:07 am

Sign o’ the times

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There are events and then there are not-so-ordinary events that give us hints, even in their disassociation, about the direction that technological (or any other type, for that matter) developments will head.

In the past week we have seen three such events – Microsoft’s formal overture towards Yahoo!, Facebook’s less-than-stellar numbers and Twitter’s ongoing saga in trying to keep a web-scale messaging framework up and running – that give us tasty hints as to where we may be headed.

The simpler, shorter version of the Microsoft – Yahoo! story is that companies that do business in the old school way – a manner similar to a behemoth, clumsy and ugly in gait – are history on the internet. Lock-in of the user and his/her data to platforms or products is a strategy that is history. It is only a stellar product that will keep companies alive in the future. And neither Microsoft, nor Yahoo! have built and in-house hit web-scale product in recent times.

The feeling that keeps coming back to my mind is that Microsoft and Yahoo! will be one of those weddings that look perfect as a mental image (for the shareholders and business wonks), but in practice it ends up being an absolute nightmare. There is a staggering amount of redundancy (for every Yahoo! product you can think of, there is almost a competing one with MSN/Live.com) and the integration will also be rotten in terms of platforms and cultures.

Even if you set apart the strong stench of desperation in the move, the fact remains that these are two companies that are struggling to catch the imagination of the younger and upcoming generation. By the time the dust settles on this one, much confusion would have ensued, which would tick off the loyal users who make up a vast majority of the numbers that make the deal look exciting.

That said, it is indeed a sad development to see an internet icon like Yahoo! being in the position that it finds itself in now. And in that state of distress lies a story for everyone who makes a living off the internet – don’t take anything for granted. Earlier, a company’s lifecycle – from inception to success to the demise – used to take decades, now the same is being compressed into ten years.

It is a theme that I will never tire of telling everyone I know: being nimble is a priceless asset in doing business now – nurture it, grow it and covet it with as much care as you covet your bottom line.

Written by shyam

February 4, 2008 at 12:32 pm