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The future of social networking: Consolidation or fragmentation?

on Apr 21 in business, links, social media, trends posted by

The past two or three years have brought social media to the mainstream Internet. MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and more recently Twitter, are the buzz de jour.

But wither Twitter and its ilk? Analysts and lay folk alike question the future of these popular apps. They’re fine for fun, chatting, catching up and sharing but where is it all headed?

Two main trends seem apparent. One is “fragmentation.” The other, in apparent juxtaposition, is “consolidation.”

Fragmentation
Social networking apps are multiplying, experimenting and milling around like kids in a candy store. With online tools such as Ning, anyone can set up a group, and get it looking pretty good with little technical smarts. The result is not quite Facebook or MySpace, but perfectly usable. More to the point, the creator can make a group to suit virtually any conceivable need, based on geography, academic interests, religious group, what brand of coffee shop they prefer, or whatever. The trend will lead to yet more groups and yet more demands on users time to participate meaningfully in such groups.

A significant pressure contributing to this trend is the greater potential for monetization—a problem that continues to bug the big players—from leveraging the loyalty of participants in smaller niche networks. According to an article by CNN, “…specialty sites believe they can offer advertisers a smaller, but passionate audience for which they’d be willing to pay more…” To counter the threat, says the article, Facebook and MySpace allow the smaller websites to create widgets that engage users, and keep them on their own networks.

But will it be enough? Facebook and MySpace are beginning to see their visitor growth asymptote. Because of competition from the smaller players? Maybe, or perhaps because users just want a different experience after the novelty of virtual poking, pillow fighting or sending undrinkable beers has worn off. 

In any case, the online social networking environment will continue to diversify and fragment, to a point where it more accurately reflects the range of interests and needs of the humanity it serves. 

Consolidation
By definition, fragmentation results in more and more networks. But people are not monolithic. Who is interested in just one type of coffee shop, sports team or knitting style? With our multiple interests, we naturally are drawn to multiple groups. I belong to more than 100 Facebook groups, and dozens of online networks, such as LinkedIn, Naymz, Twitter, and Nature Networks, as well as Facebook and MySpace.

But rampant joining cannot continue indefinitely. My time is limited. My circumstances and interests will change. And it’s simply impractical to manage all those networks with diligence and interest. Hence, social media will need to provide means of consolidating profiles and related online information.

So what will the future of social networking look like? 

In her comment on social networking trends, Charlene Li of Forrester Research says that social networks will be like “air.” That is, all around us—pervasive. And like air, without it “we won’t really feel like we are truly living and alive, just as without sufficient air, we won’t really be able to breathe deeply.”

I don’t entirely buy that vision, but Ms. Li is on the right track—social networking will become ubiquitous, its spread exertiing strong pressure for standardization. The space will need to consolidate. Already, online apps are emerging to meet the need for consolidation. 

For example, FriendFeed is “an aggregator that consolidates updates on social websites,” according to Daniel Nations on About.com’s Web Trends section. Since going mainstream in October 2007, it is now hovering around 40,000 by Alexa’s website ranking measure. But will it do? In many ways, FriendFeed does much of what Facebook does, or is capable of doing.

What might a future solution look like, if it is to approach Charlene Li’s vision of a ubiquitous social network? 

What now?
One idea of where we might be headed is ZLoop, an application currently in private alpha. ZLoop facilitates, captures, and organizes digital interaction within private, secure online environments called loops. In a sense, the loops are like the conventional networks (such as Facebook groups), but the focus is on the community, rather than the individual.

Because of the way users can manage multiple incarnations of their profiles within and among networks, the ZLoop model is highly congruous with the way in which people actually interact. For example, say I have three networks: my immediate family, my golfing buddies and my work colleagues.

I have a sales lead from one of my golfing buddies. My work colleagues and fellow golfers might be interested, but chances are my immediate family won’t be. I hear that my cousin in England is pregnant. My immediate family might be interested, possibly my golfing buddies, but most likely not my colleagues.

You get the picture. Not all people are interested in all my goings on all the time. That’s one of the drawbacks of Twitter, and it’s a flaw in the Facebook model. More than a few times, I’ve caught items posted to my profile that I’d rather not all my Facebook friends see.

This is a flaw the ZLoop model promises to address. In ZLoop, one’s profile is highly customizable to the group or network, so that you can present a quite different profile to specific networks—rather like real life.

This nested series of networks, a networks of networks concept, “…is at the core of why we built ZLoop and is one of our primary value propositions and differentiators,” according to Jim Bisenius, CEO of the company, based in Portland, Oregon.

So what is the zLoops business model? Suffice to say, the company believes it can make money. But how and when? Right now, that’s confidential.

So, what’s it to be? Consolidation or fragmentation? With an app like ZLoops it’s a mixture of both. The only way to handle fragmentation is to consolidate. ZLoops is still working out the kinks. It might not be the perfect solution, but it is certainly showing the way ahead.

More on the future of social networking 

Don Dodge: The Future Of Social Networking – Consolidation or Mass Customization?
Robert Young: The Future of Social Networks – Communication
Michael Arrington: I Saw The Future Of Social Networking The Other Day
Hannah Hickey: Future of social networking explored in UW’s computer science building
The Economist: Everywher
e and nowhere

Tim Bajarin:  The Future of Social Networking

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