thenextwave

Why social networking goes from boom to bust (and back?)

Posted in digital, gender, media, technology, trends, web 2.0 by Andrew Curry on 15 December, 2007

According to new figures from Ofcom, 4 out of 10 of British internet users now use social networking sites – and those that do spend more than 5 hours a month on social networking sites, and return 23 times a month. Usage is heavier than elsewhere in Europe, and above the USA, but behind Canada. The social networking data for the 2007 International Communications Report is from the summer, but more recent figures from Hitwise suggested that in November UK use of social networking sites overtook that of web-based email for the first time.

This seems to me likely to be related to a finding in the Ofcom research which may have as much long-term significance – that in UK (as in the US) women use the internet more often than men. In the UK the internet is used equally by men and women except in the 18-34 age group where women are far heavier users than men (57 per cent compared with 43 per cent). In the US, 52 per cent of internet users are women.

At them same time, just as Facebook is getting to the point in the UK that parodies are starting to appear (in the last week I’ve been sent ‘Hatebook‘ and ‘pensionbook‘ by colleagues), in the US there’s quite a savage Facebook backlash, partly because the site has been so blatant about ‘monetising’ itself – pimping its users to advertisers, was one phrase I saw.

But Cory Doctorow argued in a recent column in Information Week (“How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers Will Kill Facebook“) that social networking sites will inevitably go through boom and bust cycles: they are inherently unstable.

Having watched the rise and fall of SixDegrees, Friendster, and the many other proto-hominids that make up the evolutionary chain leading to Facebook, MySpace, et al, I’m inclined to think that these systems are subject to a Brook’s-law parallel: “Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.” … I think that’s why these services are so volatile: why we’re so willing to flee from Friendster and into MySpace’s loving arms; from MySpace to Facebook. It’s socially awkward to refuse to add someone to your friends list — but removing someone from your friend-list is practically a declaration of war. The least-awkward way to get back to a friends list with nothing but friends on it is to reboot.

Cory’s article crystallised for me a thought I’ve had for a while: that the Facebook/Myspace model of a single site for all of your social network is unlikely to sustain (and the fact that these models exist may only be a function of the fact that adolescents tend to have relatively integrated lives, it effectively a developmental phase they go through).

The best research on this area is by the anthropolgist danah boyd. Thanks to Cory for his links to her series of sharp papers.

I suspect the sustainable models of the future will be about overlapping sites which hold together particular interest groups and communities, where reputation (and reputational risk) restricts the likelihood of poor behaviour, and also ensures that a certain amount of distance is maintained, which creates greater stability.

A couple of other relevant points from the Ofcom report:

  • Broadband penetration in the UK in now 52% – just ahead of the US for the first time – but overall internet penetration in 63%, and barely growing. (Hence evidence elsewhere that broadband growth rates are slowing down).
  • Online advertising in the UK accounts for 14 per cent of total revenues, way ahead of other European markets. UK online advertising spend “overtook magazine advertising for the first time and was more than the total spend on outdoor, cinema, and radio advertising combined”.

Relevant posts: Rupert, MySpace, and social class and Facebook: putting the person back into the internet

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