Saturday, February 23, 2008

Social networks moving from macro to micro

On Thu., the BBC reported that Facebook experienced its first drop in UK users last month:

Users fell 5% to 8.5 million in January from 8.9 million in December, according to data from Nielsen Online.

This was the first drop in user numbers since July 2006 when Nielsen began compiling data on the site.

Nic Howell, deputy editor of industry magazine New Media Age, said the site was no longer as popular among its core audience of young people.

"Social networking is as much about who isn't on the site as who is - when Tory MPs and major corporations start profiles on Facebook, its brand is devalued, driving its core user base into the arms of newer and more credible alternatives," he said.

Some of this, of course, is just a normal result of the phenomenal growth of macro social media networks. (What goes up, after all, must come down.) And as the Beeb explains, it's also a backlash against the corporatization and decreased exclusivity of the macros. But despite the mention of "Tory MPs" above, this isn't just a UK phenomenon. There's something larger at work here: it's part of a shift in preference from macro social networks like Facebook and MySpace to micro social networks that link smaller groups of people with real-world common bonds.

I'm already part of a few such networks, including two hosted by Smaller Indiana and Fort Wayne Born to Run. Both offer significant advantages over macro social networking sites (even though the Ning interface has its flaws), including their specificity (the first is for Indiana's "creative class";
the second is for Fort Wayne runners). My guess is that the macros slowly decline as users look for the social networking equivalent of "bricks and clicks"--an ability to enhance both the online and F2F ends of relationships, in forums that are manageable and specific.

I think this shift is analogous to what we've seen happen with TV. Facebook and MySpace are like the broadcast networks, offering all things to all people depending on when you tune in. Micro social networks, conversely, are like cable, offering very specific programming for a very specific audience. We'll still use both, but the niche networks will get an increasing share of our attention.

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