The Future of Social Networks – Communication

As regular readers of GigaOM know, I have written often about social networks as a platform for self-expression, and how such new media shifts the balance of control for production and distribution of content between corporations and consumers. Along with this, I’ve written about the many strategic implications of such shifts, particularly for traditional media companies, and the business model challenges that face any player attempting to monetize social media. There is another critical aspect of social networking, however, that I have not yet addressed… and it’s one that will serve as the anchor component for social networks as they begin to enter their next stage of evolutionary development. The component I’m referring to is the communications layer embedded within social networks.

One of MySpace’s greatest innovations was something ridiculously simple… the “wall”. As most know, the wall is the messaging area of a user’s profile page, where any “friend” of the user can post comments. I describe it as “ridiculously simple” because the wall is nothing more than a common bulletin board. However, the foresight to repurpose a simple bulletin board to enable communications among a social network of people, all centered on the profiled individual him/herself, proved to be brilliant. More than any other utility for self-expression, it is the wall that keeps members coming back over and over again, often several times a day (to check for new messages). In short, the wall is to social networks what free email proved to be for portals. It is the wall that will also prove to be the most extensible component of MySpace into the future.

The value of the wall points to a very important dimension of building and running any web property that’s driven by community… that communications ultimately serves as the anchor feature and the driver of retention and growth. This need for an anchor reminds me of what I used to call “the health club” phenomenon when I was an executive at a consumer online service. When newbies join a health club, they start off full of vim and vigor… trying out all the different exercises and workout machines. But eventually, as time passes, they get tired, lazy, or just simply lose the initial excitement, and they either churn out (quit the health club) or lock onto one or two exercise routines. In similar fashion, when dealing with an online community, that one lasting activity is almost always communications.

But it is equally important to realize that communications in and of itself, especially if it’s a new form of communications like the wall, does not necessarily act as the primary draw for new users. For instance, going back to the days of consumer online services, email was not a very effective draw to acquire new users. This was mainly due to the fact that most people had no idea what email was and how useful it could be. So other benefits were emphasized, like unique content, to acquire new users. Yet once users discovered the benefits of email, it became the common ubiquitous activity among the community. As a result, it’s critical to understand that what attracts people initially is often not what keeps people on your network interested and vested in the long run… a dynamic that is a critical guide for strategic planning.

So given the importance of communications as the extensible anchor component for the future of social networks, I’ll end this by providing an example of the type of enhancement that I believe would work… one that should be obvious. MySpace, for instance, should offer its members the ability to communicate on the wall via video. So imagine friends in your social network leaving messages on your wall, but instead of just text and pictures, they post a video clip (yes, I know you can already post video clips as messages, but it’s not what I would consider an integrated video communications platform). Doing so will accomplish several strategic objectives.

First, enabling video communication will enhance novelty, thereby driving a new demand curve of stickiness. Secondly, since video messages can be counted as “user-generated” video content, the traffic and volume of video messages should spike, thus providing MySpace with an added source of video production & consumption that could easily surpass YouTube’s traffic count. Lastly, this is the kind of functionality that would be ideal for mobile phone extension. Imagine kids using their video mobile phones to upload and download video messages… it’s something that could easily become the next cool thing and ubiquitous.

As the web portals of the last generation learned, communications anchors their traffic… Yahoo! would be a shadow of itself were it not for free email, IM, etc. Social networks, which are rapidly becoming the portals of the next generation, must place high strategic priority on their communications functionality if they wish to continue their pace of traffic growth, usage, and retention.