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3/5/2007
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Has Social Networking Gone Too Far?

Critics suggest USA Today's redesign and Cisco's acquisition of Utah Street Networks means we're either building a thriving social network or a forum ghost town.

Over the weekend, USA Today unveiled a Web site redesign that reimagines the online newspaper as the center of a social media community.

"While we've refined the design, we've also expanded the journalistic mission: Our ambition is to help readers quickly and easily make sense of the world around them by giving them a wider view of the news of the day and connecting them with other readers who can contribute to their understanding of events," wrote editor Ken Paulson and executive editors Kinsey Wilson and John Hillkirk, in a note posted on the newspaper's site.

It's a sensible move, if you accept Blue Whale Labs CEO Stowe Boyd's assertion that newspapers "want to be 'destinations' where people 'go' as opposed to just winding up as RSS streams." Certainly, more up-to-date site design, navigation, and interactivity will keep the paper from appearing to be woefully behind the times.

Whether the newspaper's readers want a more social media experience is another question entirely, assuming you're willing to overlook the 92% negative reaction to the redesign noted by Don Dodge, director of business development for Microsoft's Emerging Business Team, in his assessment of 130 online comment postings.

In contrast to interest-oriented online community sites that evolved naturally, "a news site has such a different premise at its core, it's hard to imagine how USA Today could have gotten it right in the first go," says Boyd. "And they certainly didn't. They fumbled it pretty badly."

The problem USA Today faces is that it wants to own a conversation that already spans multiple Web sites. "I don't believe that people in general, even people who are really partial to particular media outlets, are going to want to have a closed social media experience around a single Web site," Boyd says.

Regardless of the fact that it's hard to build a thriving social network, as opposed to a forum ghost town, companies are rushing to offer or implement interactivity. On Monday, Cisco said it had acquired social networking company Utah Street Networks, only a month after announcing a deal for social networking software company Five Across Inc. Also today, VelvetPuffin launched a social network for PCs and mobile phones. Last week, social networking service provider Ning launched a new version of a DIY social networking platform. Reuters is planning a financially oriented social networking site. Anheuser-Busch recently launched a social networking site called MingleNow to promote beer consumption. The list goes on and on. Did someone say "bubble"?

A February study by GfK Roper Consulting titled "Modern Communities" finds that online communities represent a real and growing phenomenon, but one that is dwarfed by interest in real-world social networks. "One of our key findings in the survey is community in the broader sense is really important to people," says Kathy Sheehan, senior VP with GfK Roper Consulting.

Rating the importance of community groups, survey respondents expressed strong or some connection with: extended family (94%), neighborhood or town (80%), religious or spiritual organization (77%), hobby/interest (69%), workplace (68%), local community group (45%), national social activism/volunteer group (30%), professional group or union (25%), and virtual or online community (20%).

As an indicator of people's hunger for community, Sheehan points to an increase in the number of people seeking co-op living arrangements at universities around the United States. "People are alienated by technology," she explained. "That said, we do see there's a small but growing group of people who feel a strong connection to some sort of online community."

Among those aware of online communities, 50% said the best reason to use them was to keep in touch with friends and family. A mere 16% wanted to view and share media content with people of similar interests.

Perhaps more noteworthy, 61% of the total public -- based on the 1,004 American adults surveyed -- are not interested in online communities and 18% said they don't have the time for them.

Sheehan says "there will be a shakeout" among social networking sites.

But don't give up on social networking yet. Sheehan observes that among the young and influential -- the most active 10% of the public and a leading indicator of market trends -- online communities are "almost interchangeable" with offline ones.

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