Social Website Dysphoria

The Age of Confusion

… well, they might not do that, after all, unlike Microsoft, Apple doesn’t seem to be interested in entering the “pure” social website market. The reason might be a simple one: they know how to sell music (on an age where everybody complains about reduced sales due to piracy) and even how to sell applications on behalf of their developers, but they don’t know how to make money out of social websites 🙂 Allegedly, when an Apple representative was asked why they weren’t in Second Life, the answer was: “we don’t know how to make money out of it”. It might not be a true story, but at least it does ring true. 🙂 Believe me, if some Apple representative figures out that they could sell audio streams from iTunes straight into SL and turn a nice profit out of it, they wouldn’t hesitate…

The point is, creating social websites is now very easy.

Three years ago, I had a small project that required a Facebook/MySpace clone, and, being short of funding, I was looking for something that was open source and could be installed easily on the client’s server (Ning was ruled out because it cannot be downloaded and installed…). There weren’t many choices. Most people recommended to do it on my own, using Joomla or any other popular content management tools. But, of course, the costs of development would have been staggering. And worse than that woud be the costs of maintenance. So the project was dumped; there wasn’t a friendly business angel around the corner willing to invest a few million dollars in developing Yet Another Facebook/MySpace Clone 🙂

The truth is, these days, a lot of tools abound. I usually recommend Boonex’s Dolphin, which is by far the best solution to get one fully-featured social website up and running with all the bells and whistles. But even easier solutions are around the corner, like the newly launched WordPress-based BuddyPress. Granted, it has way less features than Dolphin (or any other tool), but it will capitalise on the huge developer base of WordPress to do what WordPress does best: add gazillions of plugins to do whatever Facebook does, and do it better. In far less time that Facebook took. And if you wish to replicate Twitter, you can always try laconi.ca, even though some friends of mine hate that open-source clone because they say the code is awful. It might be the case, but the point is: once the province of very highly specialised and talented developers, platforms for building social networking tools easily are becoming commonplace.

And with that, we’ll start looking at Web 2.1 — an explosion of clones of all kinds of social tools, not unlike what happened with “content management software” during the dot-com era. What this means is that “originality” will not be such an unique feature: after all, what distinguished Facebook from MySpace was mostly the ability to add new applications. Once all current social websites start allowing those applications (either through OpenSocial or, well, WordPress plugins…), they will become more and more alike, and you will have a much wider variety of choices. And lots and lots of more different logins to remember. Oh yes! I will probably look back and be happy about being registered “only” to 250 sites today.

(As a side note, you might have noticed that I’ve added RPX support on my blog, since I got so many criticisms about the difficulties of getting registered with OpenID when posting a comment on my blog. Now you can choose from 12 different identity providers 🙂 However, I guess that in 2012 I’ll need to add a few thousands…)

As designing social websites becomes commonplace… things will probably become much closer to what the blogging landscape is today: thousands of solutions, with a handful of “major” ones struggling to compete with the independent ones. And that will mean fragmentation. I might, for example, dislike Facebook’s fascist ToS, and instead use exclusively a BuddyPress-based Facebook clone that has a more reasonable one. Or, well, I might simply join a SL-specific Facebook clone, since I don’t bother about anything else on Facebook anyway — and thanks to RPX, I will even be able to log in to that with my Facebook account! And invite my friends over easily.

With thousands of social website solutions around, it will be even harder to get a solid business plan for the existing ones. If ads for paying for the running costs become popular, and people tire from seeing those, they’ll jump to the ones hosted by their friends at home and instead just push status updates to Facebook — but they will never log in there. That’s what I already do: I’m part of the statistics that counts status updates, but I do not need to log in to Facebook at all. So I’m not part of Facebook’s revenue stream. Twitter, of course, is even worse, since the number of people that use the service but never actually log in to the site is huge. So even if Twitter, at some point, started pushing ads on their site, a large number of users (perhaps 40% or more!) would never see them. Unless, say, Twitter started charging for external applications to post to their system… which, of course, would only lead to people to move faster to Facebook instead (and use the very same external tools to post status updates on Facebook, too!).

In fact, as more and more APIs are released, and all of them are free… the less likely people will, in the near future, log in to those sites. But the backend servers will still feel the traffic! They will just not be pushing ads. And once that happens, companies will not see any point in placing ads there. It’s the dot-com bubble bursting again.

Or perhaps social networking fatigue will settle even earlier and people just tire of microblogging. 🙂 They will still post pictures and videos of themselves, of course, because that’s something quite tied to our ego and vanity, and thus will remain (and consume bandwidth!). And, of course, a lot will still be on those sites for dating 😉

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