What next for social networking?

Predicting which companies and software are going to prosper and which are going to fizzle and disappear is a notoriously unreliable business, but it certainly looks at the moment as if Facebook, Myspace and Bebo are pretty well entrenched as the major social networking sites not only in the UK but also in many other countries, including (perhaps crucially in terms of predicting the future) the US.

Possibly this trio will change slightly in composition, having one of its members replaced or being joined by a fourth or fifth, but at the moment all three seem set pretty fair and currently have between them 85% of the UK internet traffic to social networking sites.

One challenge may come from niche services which mix social networking with other purposes, such as Twitter, which is a micro-blogging tool with some social networking aspects thrown in.

A different source of change may be from a proliferation of many small, specialised social networks leaving these big beasts looking clunky and crowded by comparisson. (The replacement of one-stop do it all services with specialised niche services is something the IT world has seen in many guises already.)

Tools such as Ning already allow people to set up their own social networks, but they are currently relatively little used.

What may change all that is BuddyPress, and if I had to bet I’d say this is the most likely prospect at the moment to really shake up the social networking world.

Still in development, it is a collection of WordPress plugins and themes which would convert a WordPress multi-user blog into a WordPress multi-user blog with a social network. There are an awful lot of WordPress users out there and this would make adding on social networking facilities to a site relatively easy. (At least, it would if you use the multi-user version, but then BuddyPress in turn may make that a whole lot more popular).

Rather than having to go away and learn a new tool that gives you a social networking service that is not integrated with your site, BuddyPress could make it fairly easy to add on one, using skills people are already familiar with. And what becomes easy, frequently becomes popular.

(If BuddyPress finally launches in a blaze of success, please remember this post as an example of expert prediciton. If on the other hand it fizzles and never gets beyond version 0.8546, then you imagined ever reading this.)

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9 Comments

  • Martin Land 7th Aug '08 - 9:55am

    What next for social networking? People get lives?

  • I think there’s certainly a place for the use of new technology in campaigning (as someone who works with that kind of technology on a daily basis), but there has to be a very clear analysis of the benefit derived from any of it. “Build it and they will come” does not necessarily apply.

    What’s far more important than the technology is the human factor. Who’s going to run these things, provide advice on how to set them up, and check up on whether they’re working? There’s a bit of a problem with techno-enthusiasm in that we often end up assuming that technology is a magic bullet. Need to produce a document or create a strategy for something? Let’s set up a wiki and wait for wiki-magic to cause a document to emerge! Need mass support for a campaign on green issues? Set up a Facebook group!

    Technology’s great strength is in lowering barriers to participation, but this is often quite unevenly spread. A wiki that anyone can edit is, in theory, a very low barrier to entry. Except for the fact that a lot of people don’t know what a wiki is, or how to use one productively, or what standards may be expected of them. And if mass participation is achieved, it may end up being just another eternal September.

    The focus needs to be on people and what use they can make of the technology, and that means a focus on emotional appeal, usability and usefulness to the people using it. Having a purpose matters more than having a whizzy social networking tool, because ordinary people simply cannot identify with a website.

  • I agree that face-to-face communication is both far more efficient than anything you can do on facebook, but if we can continue to learn from our experience of political efforts on social networking sites I think there will some accelerated value from new and refined tools and applications on them at some point in the future.

    At what point it will be possible to say that the growth of presence more than compensates for the wasted efforts it is hard to say, but every single new member is an extra potential body on the ground.

    It shouldn’t be forgotten that there are many for whom social networks (whether online or offline – ie gossip over the garden wall) are the primary or only source of new political information or comment, so we neglect it at our peril.

    Online services will never replace real world activities, but they should add to the spectrum of active outlets to form a more complete and naturally balanced complement.

    Everything productive is positive.

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