Is Social Networking Destined To Go Bust?

Michael Hirschorn takes an in-depth look at online social networking and predicts that sites like MySpace will soon go bust.
Michael Hirschorn takes an in-depth look at online social networking and predicts that sites like MySpace will soon go bust.Hirschorn's thesis is that online trends rapidly go from must-have to has-been. And unless the service or trend in question evolves -- like Google or Web browsers -- the trend tends to go flat just as quickly as it spiked into the mainstream:

Where Facebook has made a virtue of these limits, MySpace has made a virtue of its lack of them. It now is so large -- 100 million-plus registered accounts -- that it has almost come to be a proxy for the Internet. This is the problem with the social-media phenomenon. MySpace once enabled a remarkable social renaissance: Because of the site's indefinable halo effect, you would answer e-mails you would normally never open, meet people you'd never suffer otherwise ("Bill O'Reilly" is one of my MySpace friends). It was, in fact, not unlike freshman year at college. But what's remarkable soon becomes ordinary. MySpace remains cool -- thanks to surprisingly deft stewardship by its new owner, News Corp. -- but nothing is cool forever. And once the tantalizing pull of millions of people you could possibly be best friends with wears off, you're left with some by now pretty ordinary functionality: blogging; instant messaging; photo, video, and audio uploads; and networking tools. Thanks to the inexorable process of Web innovation, such stuff goes from "OMG" to "Whatever" in no time flat.

Hirschorn points out that as social networking sites grow, they add more and more services, like IM, etc. What's interesting is that as these sites expand, they begin to look a lot like the "walled garden" of online portals such as AOL in the mid-1990s:

AOL followed a roughly analogous "walled garden" strategy until recently. The strategy died, in part because the limited offerings within the garden couldn't compete with the near-infinite wilderness beyond the picket fence. The social-media sites are touting their expertly tended, notably fecund, but still fenced-in offerings. And to be fair, they are free, unlike the old subscription-based AOL. But, as with the dial-ups, the distinctions in and among these offerings will become less interesting. Instant messaging, in yet another example of the Web's buzz-to-blah dynamic, was once a unique and compelling reason to subscribe to AOL, not to mention hyped as a revolutionary application that would render e-mail fogeyish and vestigial. It's now a commodity function.

He points out that many social networking sites try to create communities where no basis for them exists. Successful social networking sites facilitate online behavior that already exists. They don't try to create it out of thin air. Successful communities are created by users, not by companies.

Social networking sites also are going niche and vertical. As social sites go from upstart to mega-site the growth often renders them less effective as community engines.

Hirschorn suggests that the "cool kids," the early adopters who kick-started social networking as a fad, already are moving on:

But, as with IM, the value proposition doesn't remain constant. The walled-garden attributes of MySpace and Facebook, like those of the subscriber-era AOL, can quickly become liabilities. And as the value of social-media tools becomes inevitably unsexy and commoditized, it may be only a matter of time before the Tila Tequilas of the world, inspiration for millions of page views, decide they might as well go elsewhere. And, just as in high school, where the cool kids go, the rest of us will follow.

What do you think? Is social networking as a fad already dying? Or will it become a mainstay of the Web?

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