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Friendster, Bebo, Tribe, Vox—we’ve missed you of late. As today is supposed to mark the end of the world, the virtual social worlds of years past have been much on our mind.
Where have they gone? Why did they go? Do we even care?
It’s hard to answer those questions without first marveling at what now falls under “social.” A decade ago, blogs and sites like Friends Reunited or Classmates.com were peripheral to our daily digital lives. Today online sociability is the norm: We turn to Yelp reviews when deciding about a restaurant or, when that fails, post on our Facebook walls—“Hey, where can I find good Thai in Philly?” We laugh at cat videos all day long, and we add our IMHO to a long list of responses to ire-inducing blog posts.
So, turning to a more constricted understanding of “social,” one that’s limited to family, friends, and friends of friends, let’s take a look back at some of the pioneering social networks that ushered in the Age of Social and see what they tell us about our current online habits or where social networks may be headed in the coming years.
The earliest social network to really take off, Friendster was a harbinger of the world to come. Part address book, part dating site, part social sharing phenom, it changed the way we thought about the Internet. Instead of a static relationship between user and website, Friendster suggested that the Internet could offer a dynamic experience shared between multiple people. The then-interest in chat rooms hinted at this possibility, but Friendster made it virtually real.
Or did it? Many blame mismanagement for the company’s demise, but Peter Pachal keenly noted an overlooked weakness: Friendster simply wasn’t friendly enough. Sure, users could message each other and post testimonials about a pal’s awesomeness, but the emphasis was definitely on the user profile: personal history, photos, how many people paid complimentary testimonials. That kind of activity no doubt honed the hyper awareness of “Brand Me” that plagues us today, but it was only ever going to take a social network so far.
Hence, the Facebook news feed. Once the social media giant—then a growing teen—made the feed its default home page, the other networks were sunk, Pachal argued. Because while we may be as self-involved as TIME Magazine suggested in 2006 when it christened “You” the person of the year, we’re also ferociously social. We need each other to survive, a rule, it turns out, as applicable to social networking sites as it is to stuck-on-a-deserted-island scenarios.
But before there was Facebook, we had Myspace. Besides incorporating more of the sociability that Friendster lacked, it had more bands, was more cool. Unfortunately, Myspace had more everything—more ads, more features, more spam, more sexual predators, more and more visual and aural clutter. Using the site was like walking into your friend’s creepy brother’s basement room with its beeping, blinking toy robots; sexed-up anime posters; and stacks of DVDs and gaming consoles littering an unmade bed.
Myspace was a hot mess. It did not keep it simple, the KISS design principle made famous by engineer Kelly Johnson. Other wildly successful tech start-ups did and still do KISS: Apple, Google, and Facebook all offer clean visuals and easy navigation, though the latter has begun looking frayed at its edges, where ads are taking up more real estate.
Is the new New Myspace (now in its third incarnation) tidier? Initial reviews suggest yes and no. There’s apparently less visual vomit but more navigational headache. That can be cured, but the existential dilemma at the heart of the New Myspace—just what is it for?—may be a lost cause.
Vampirefreaks.com, Goodreads, Tribe, hi5, Google+, LinkedIn
Even as Friendster and Myspace were duking it out for our attention, other social networks were coming and going or percolating quietly with a modest 1,300, 185,000, or 10 million users. The roll call includes networks as niche as Elftown (for fantasists), as ethnocentric as Biip.no (Norwegians only), as service-based as CouchSurfing (for traveling on the cheap), and as recent as My Last Wish. (Launched ten months ago, the site offers a way for those with similar bucket lists to connect.) Apple weakly reached for a slice of the social networking pie with Ping but shuttered it after just two years.
Search engine heavyweight Google entered the social networking arena (again) with more success; Google+ now reports 135 million active users. LinkedIn also posts impressive numbers—175 million users as of October 2012—but Twitter tops both with its 200 million.
Lumping Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter with social networks as junior as My Last Wish may seem flawed, but all social networks appear secondary next to Facebook at the moment, with its 1 billion users and counting. And, despite its IPO debacle earlier this year, the king of social networks looks to reign for a long, long time, even though some people miss the original Facebook they grew to love.
Given tech advances today and the public’s gnat-like attention span, “a long, long time” may equal two years, but I don’t think so. Call it social media fatigue or chalk it up to Facebook’s usability, but I believe it’ll chug along from a combination of user laziness, inertia, and its own gated policies.
Because going from one social network to another isn’t as easy as switching your data from one phone to another (and even that isn’t a snap), people will be reluctant to make the jump. Joining Facebook is like moving into a gated community where almost all your friends and family live. Relocating means leaving all your stuff behind—those cute back-and-forths with your friends, your hundreds of photos—and swimming against the tide of others moving in. You’d then somehow have to mount an argument convincing enough to get them to leave their own stuff and join you in another social network Valhalla where you can jointly re-upload all your albums and invite friends to your new digs. Just the thought of it is exhausting.
Of course, we did just that in the migration from Myspace to Facebook, but the two networks were established only five months apart. Myspace users weren’t as firmly entrenched in the social network as they likely are today in Facebook—now almost nine years old—nor were as many of their peers even on social media.
Google+, which serves as the closest substitute for Facebook, is unlikely to ever topple the competition. That’s because it serves essentially the same function. It may do it better, it may do it worse, but until it attracts the right influencers and eases switchover pain, it doesn’t really matter. As one coworker wrote me, “I wish G+ would die.” Success seems more possible for LinkedIn and Twitter, which serve different functions from Facebook and are learning from the ghosts of social networks past.
All efforts may be for naught, however. Today is the end of everything, so say the Mayan apocalypse theorists. Soon all worlds may be but virtual memories.