They’re an unlikely area of common ground between individuals as diverse as Ashton Kutcher and Stephen Fry. They’ve made literal billions for a few, and have had take-up figures numbering in the billions elsewhere. Cormac Duffy examines the rise and rise of the social networking site
Over the last few years, online social networking has been subject to unstoppable growth, becoming one of the defining revolutions of the information age.
It has changed the way millions of people communicate and looks likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It has made billionaires of the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and Tom Anderson, the founder of MySpace.
Analysing them has become a key area in information studies, but questions of what make particular sites so popular and whether or not they can survive in a volatile market still exist. Why is Facebook seen as better than Bebo? Is MySpace still as popular as it once was? What on earth draws people to Twitter?
The simplest factor affecting sites’ popularity is obviously their usefulness. Sites have to strike the perfect balance of being open to editing as consumers add videos, pictures, music and backgrounds to their profile, while making sure all these applications are highly user-friendly.
Dr Lee Komito, who lectures in the UCD School of Information Studies, shared his academic opinions on social networking with The University Observer. Komito is the module coordinator for ‘Cybersociety: Technology, Culture and Communication’ and ‘Weaving the Web: the Internet and Society’. He believes any social networking site’s appeal comes from how it grants users “the ability to see what friends and family are doing…to communicate easily with them and exchange information with them in a user friendly fashion”.
In terms of being user-friendly, many complain of the difficulty of editing on Myspace as edits mainly require inputting html and css code, neither of which are known for their accessibility. In terms of features, students in particular seem to be drawn to sites with built in instant messaging features, as it keeps things more interesting than simply waiting around for a comment to be left.
Features aside, for any aspiring social network, the image of the site is the most important. Sites either need to find a niche audience, as LinkedIn did with the business community, or be seen as possessing some sort of mass marketable status and appeal. Without doubt, the worst thing that can happen to a social networking site is having a stereotype about it develop. Frivolous notions such as ‘Bebo is for kids’ or ‘Myspace is for geeks’ became self fulfilling prophecies, as people were discouraged from using them for fear of falling into one of these stereotypes.
Social networking is ultimately a highly refined from of conspicuous consumption. The right person joining the site can bring large numbers of friends along with them, starting a chain effect. Of course this chain effect can apply in reverse as when people stop using sites, so too will their friends. These notions obviously only apply to younger users, which according to conventional knowledge are the main market for social networking. It is true that in this area social networking has achieved near full market saturation. Komito disagrees though, citing his research into the appeal of the service to those working in foreign countries.
“We’re finding that it’s a very important means by which people living in a foreign country can keep in contact with friends and relations and events in there home country.” he remarks, “this is happening regardless of age”.
He also discusses how changes in the market can occur without drops in usage, citing the example of how even though many users ‘migrate’ from Bebo to Facebook as they enter college, Bebo will continue to attract users new to secondary schools.
It needs to be understood that social networking is big business. In fact, it is one of the biggest new businesses of recent times. Facebook alone is estimated to be worth somewhere in the area of $15 billion. How is this earned in the first place though?
As sites increase their membership and web traffic, they become able to increase the amount they charge to advertise on their site, thus increasing their profit. This can be taken to further levels as social networking sites use the information on subscribers’ profiles to help businesses connect directly with their target market. “They will also have a great information storehouse, which, depending on the privacy rules of different sites, they can then sell on in some aggregated form to marketers” says Komito.
As a business model, it’s simple. But this ignores the massive importance of consumer taste. As discussed, trends in social networking can be volatile. Having the largest membership may work in terms of business, but it runs the risk of harming the site’s image. In terms of consumer loyalty, the most successful sites will be the ones that allow its users to communicate with the coolest people in the coolest ways. If the site becomes overpopulated, users can often be put in touch with people they rather wouldn’t be, not to mention having to deal with large levels of spam left in their comments section.
In terms of popularity, the clear winner is Facebook. According to alexa.com, which tracks global internet usage by site, it is second only to the behemoth that is Google, and ranks safely above competitors such as Myspace and Twitter. It even manages to attract higher usage than Youtube and Wikipedia, as well as msn and Yahoo. As trends change, Bebo has suffered a massive drop in popularity, with a decline in usage of almost 20 per cent over the last three months. Somehow, it has managed to maintain a huge market share in Ireland, where it remains one of the top ten most visited sites.
People often question the potential damages of social networking, as they become a forum for extremism. Within the last fortnight, Facebook was forced to remove a poll from a user’s profile which asked “Should Barack Obama be assassinated?” The poll offered response options including “If he takes my healthcare”. The site removed the poll after it was brought to their attention and the story was soon picked up by national news. In typical American fashion, the ensuing debate has focused on issues of free speech and whether or not Facebook were right to intervene by removing the poll. According to Komito though, it was standard procedure to deal with incitement of hatred. “What happened there is no different to legislation that would govern television, radio or newspapers.”
The advent and success of Twitter secured the popularity of ‘microblogging’, leaving short messages updating your followers on your current activities. Twitter has been heralded by many as the future of the media. Just last month, the crash of the Luas and a Dublin Bus was reported almost instantly on Twitter, with RTÉ news taking their images and information from the Twitter website. Sites like this promote the notion that mainstream media is a dying breed. Twitter it seems could be a revoloutionary step in social networking.
We can only wonder what the next big thing in social networking is going to be. In terms of hardware, sites will be aiming to increase their suitability for the new generation of smart phones entering the market. Google are working on a program that will host all your individual profiles from Bebo, Facebook and Myspace in the one place. Either way, we can be assured that the industry will continue to be as dynamic, innovative and revolutionary as it has been in the last decade.