Owning Your Community: A Review of Social Network Sitesby Grant Bramlett on Mar 17, 2011 • 3:14 PM 4 Comments
Social media has now permeated almost every aspect of our lives, providing us with one-stop shops for news, media, business, and a way to keep in contact with friends and family. Consider this, almost every person you know is a member of at least one of these networks. That being said, social networking still has its limits and many of the major game changers are gone, almost as quickly as they appeared. Myspace, once the dominant force of the social network strata (first years of the new millennium) has been usurped by the new king in town, Facebook. With Facebook’s ability to now “like”, “suggest”, or “share” sources from other websites with quick, click of a button, users are even further enmeshed in their networks than before. Other social sites such as Twitter, Linked-In, theBlueWarrior, and Google Buzz, all share this capability, though not to the extent or reach of the massive Facebook. But while the recent trend of “everything connected” seems to still be going strong, but I’m predicting that the current, major influencers are reaching their peak, and it’s all downhill from there.
It’s an awesome feeling going to a single website to connect with all of your friends and relatives. We can create a searchable profile with our descriptions and likes, invite large crowds of people to events, and share anything that interests us at the moment. And as of recent, we can peruse our favorite news or shopping site and share this as well! But at what point do the networks get too large and the voices of friends and family begin to drown each other out. And how many updates does it take, notifying you that Becky bought a new purse or Sam is hung over again, before you just don’t care? My point is that while the likes of Facebook, Linked-In, and Friendster remain vast pools of knowledge and connections, over-saturation is bound to occur. And when it does, people will be leaving in droves. Example, look at Myspace today.
This idea of over-saturation is nothing new and many entrepreneurs are using a head start advantage to create more focused sites, all in attempts to fleeing customers. The thought process is that social networking plays such an important role in today’s society, it will never truly dissolve. What most likely will occur is a fracturing of current networks into tinier, niche markets. Example of this behavior is evident in the early days of the internet and the use of chat rooms. Chat rooms were the staple of internet socialization in the 1990s with users surfing for topics of discussion at a single site, then immediately joining and interacting. Within a few years though, a rise in personal websites dedicated to specific topics with similar forum capabilities appeared, effectively ending the reign of the all encompassing chat rooms. Another example of social internet fraction is in the once might AOL. The 90s internet was the AOL internet. With the ability to browse websites, chat, e-mail, get current news, etc., AOL was the official portal to the internet, at one time swelling to 130,000,000 users (almost half the US population at the time, in comparative numbers). But it’s all inclusive services eventually overwhelmed the normal, everyday user, leading to a decline in memberships. Former AOL users found smaller, focused service providers that catered to their specific wants and needs. Though AOL is still a leading internet service provider in present day, its membership numbers are somewhere around the 19,000,000 mark, and even that is rapidly declining.
Micro-social networks are THE future of social networking. The common citizen now has vast amounts of free resources that allow almost anyone to create a personal network within minutes. As these resources and networks are refined, they will begin to slowly chip away at the current social behemoths until their combined power rivals the giants. I’ve made a concerted effort to test most of the social networking platforms I mention in this article. Some of them required a hefty down payment for even minimal, basic use, and I was unwilling to fork out the cash to test a program that was widely known to be unpopular. I have not been paid for any advertising. To give you an idea of my level of computer skills: I have no real, educational background in computers. I was a video game nerd throughout high school and a Political Science major in college. I do have the benefit of attending US Army Signal School, but its focus was on radio and network configurations, not the use of operating systems, internet, or software. What programming I have learned is from books and free tutorials available on the internet. So without further adieu, here is my review of the leading social network sites:
Facebook The current unrivaled king of social networks, probably with a ways to go before its popularity wanes. Created by Harvard drop-out Mark Zuckerberg, it was originally open to college students with active, student email accounts. Facebook’s methodology for growth was to select specific colleges to focus on and provide them user content, then to sit back and allow user numbers to explode at the local level as it’s popularity went viral. This niche marketing allowed for a stable growth on college campuses, guaranteeing it a foothold in the social network realm. Within a few years of its official start, its member numbers almost rivaled that of the well-established Myspace. It then opened its markets to the general populace, dropping its original requirement for a valid, college e-mail account. Facebook has since spread so far in reach, it’s now possible to share content from other websites such as shopped items, news of interest, and favored widgets.
Facebook does not allow you to create your own network, but I feel it needs mentioning in this list due to it being standard that other social networks base themselves off. It is possible to create user groups and advertising pages which collect fans and subscribers, but this is as a subset of the original network. Most social network creators do their best to emulate the Facebook platform in order to woo over users. My personal opinion is that any networking site seeking real growth and community interaction should avoid any similarity to the Facebook platform. Their ideas are already in use. It’s old and outdated. Why not provide something different and unique?
Myspace The one-time juggernaut of social networks, Myspace has claimed over 100,000,000 users, rivaling populations of some developed countries. Based off the platform of Friendster, several eUniverse employees took the idea of social networking and ran with it. Tom Anderson, one of Myspace’s original founders stated that the original intent of the site was to allow musicians to collaborate music in order to spread word and talent. Use of the website went viral and within 2 years was the leading social network platform. Though a dominant force, it found itself in direct competition with the rising Facebook, eventually being eclipsed in usage in 2008. Myspace continues to be the #2 social network site, but it has had to reorient itself to a niche market in order to retain relevancy. Myspace claims to have gone back to its original intent of providing a platform for new and rising artist to get their music to their fans quickly.
Myspace also does not allow you to create your own social network. Like Facebook, you can create a user profile with friends, groups, and forums, and also upload and play music of your own or to your liking. Originally, you could use html and css to design your page for different appearance. This capability was eventually abandoned as Myspace attempted to compete directly with Facebook. Myspace is now a niche market platform focused on proving access to new music and designed for young people. It still claims on average 19,000,000 regular users.
Linked-In Viewed as an underdog in social networking for many years, Linked-In has stepped into its own becoming the 3rd place champion. Linked-In is what Monster.com failed to become. In a completely niche market, Linked-In is for professionals and careerists networking with each other for employment needs and opportunities. Due to its area of focus, it has succeeded in becoming a dominant force in the employment AND social market, and a must for today’s job seekers.
Linked-In does not allow you to create your own social network. By creating a user profile, individuals can peruse job listings, employers, or job seekers, via connections made. Linked-In is the Facebook for adults. It is my bet that Linked-In will continue to grow in numbers and power unless the other dominant networks figure out a way to siphon off some of its market.
Ning A dominant, niche, social platform that allows users to create their own social network with the resources provided them. Using open source programming, users can edit and create php and html modules to alter the look and operation of their personal network. Ning gives the social network creator the ability to provide photo albums, chat, video, and profile listings to their personal network users. Though well established with lots of reference material, I have read several complaints from network creators that they feel ripped off by the entire creation experience. User IDs that are created for a particular social network or domain are capable of accessing any other social network or domain on the Ning platform. Social network creators feel this takes away from the ownership of their domains and causes unnecessary competition from within Ning. Personally, I prefer not to use Ning based off this information. But it’s an excellent tool for those new to the social network market.
WordPress One of the top personal website designer platforms in the world. While its intended use was for personal blog websites, its ease of use has allowed it to develop into an open sandbox platform. Several large scale corporations are known to use WordPress as their domain platform. Due to WordPress not originally intended as a social network toolbox, socialization elements are not included with the platform. Instead, creators can choose to add these features as they go, either by coding it in themselves, or purchasing them as modules from 3rd party individuals to install onto their site.
I cannot vouch for the amount of users, fans, or subscribers a domain owner can have on WordPress before bogging down the databases, but well hosted and dedicated servers should help with that. I definitely suggest WordPress for the beginner website creator who is still unsure on what direction their network will go.
Boonex Dolphin Another reigning social network creator, Boonex’s Dolphin platform offers so much content, it is sometimes overwhelming for a new user. Once installed on your server, creators will find that their new site comes with almost everything—and I mean everything. Chat, Video, Music, Forum, Blogs, Matching, Profiles, Classifieds, Calendars, the list goes on. I believe this is also the downfall of Dolphin, as well. While it is awesome that all of these features come standard, creators are sometimes unsure of what content to include on their site. This usually leads to their social websites being overcrowded and excessive, causing users to shy away. Due to all of the functional features included, it is almost impossible for a user to find an area they prefer to interact in.
In order to alter a specific feature in Dolphin, it is sometimes necessary to change up to 3 different files in totally different locations on the server side. In all honesty, I prefer this method as I can truly get into the nitty-gritty of coding, changing the elements to my own liking. My own social network site, theBlueWarrior.com is based on the Dolphin platform. While I have had my share of headaches with it as one small error could completely crash your website, the network is completely mine and I can add or take away anything I like.
One quick note on this: Boonex has been careful to ensure that its advertising remains on your social website. For a pretty price, you can have those removed. But if you attempt to remove it yourself, you will quickly find that your site is no longer accessible.
SocialGo A pretty, cookie-cutter social network creator, SocialGo is intended for small, personal networks for family members and local soccer teams. It is NOT open source but comes with easy add-on modules that you can purchase. The admin guys at SocialGo will even go as far as installing the modules for you. If you’re looking for a quick network to create, and meant for select people, this is the simplest way to go.
Now for the downsides. Domain hosting options are not available. When setting up your domain, it HAS to be hosted by the service provider offered by SocialGo. While there are options to upgrade the server capabilities, there is no chance for transferring the domain to any other provider. If that doesn’t sound fishy, here’s the next catch: any domain you create is actually a subdomain to SocialGo’s URL. In other words, in order to access your site, users will have to go to www.yoursite.SocialGo.com, or some other version of that. I would hope that any domain I purchased and owned would belong to me, not the service provider or platform I chose to use.
SkaDate A dating software platform I have worked with before, SkaDate provides both open source coding and cookie-cutter modules, depending on the skill level of the creator. The service is not free, requiring a one-time fee of over $400, and modules added come at an additional price. Other than the price requirement, I have found SkaDate fun to use and easy to rely on. In no way do I claim to be an expert programmer and I admit that some of my ideas for websites are far-fetched. But SkaDate allows me to either approach my problems with their easy user interface or to delve deep into coding. A friend of mine with no programming experience has worked on my sites with me and found the module interface simple enough for a beginner webmaster. I’m more of a fan of open source, cPanel type editing, but SkaDate has so far proven reliable enough for both.
There are many more social network sites and platformsthan I have mentioned here. At some point, I’ll try to cover down on all of them. Each of the platforms provide a similar service (though some better than others) that can suit your needs. I think the biggest thing to remember when creating or using a social network is that Facebook has already been done. Their format is successful and user friendly. Attempting to replicate their look for your own site will only lead to failure. There is no reason for a user to leave a working website like Facebook for an exact copy of it, but with less users. Where you can excel at is by providing a service that is more focused or localized. Facebook is HUGE and that keeps it catering to the masses, thus ignoring the individuals. Create a network that makes your users feel included and they’ll come to you without looking back. Last of all, provide content that is relevant to your site and users. Anyone can post copied news stories to their website. It’s the successful social networks that are making news and creating content. Until next time!