Sunday, December 30, 2012

Social network as context

After reading Josh Miller's post Tenth Grade Tech Trends, a few thoughts went through my mind.  First one was a validation that there will continue to be fragmented social networking services.  Second one was the reason for plethora of social networks had a lot to do with the context that users assign.  In other words the narrative that users tell their friends when describing how the network should be used.  I've been calling it context.  Third one was that even though existing social networks copy the feature set of a new network, it's difficult to break the mold established by user's earlier narrative.

Let me elaborate on each.

1. Continued fragmentation of social networking services

It's becoming easier to launch a new social network.  Thanks to Amazon AWS, there is a new market of providers who offer hosted computing powers on demand.  There is also increasing number of tools to help developer put together a functional social networking service.  Technological barrier is coming down quickly and it's becoming a lot cheaper to start a new social network.  This lower barrier to entry is attracting many entrepreneurs to try their social network ideas with real users to see if they stick.

Lucky for the startups, we are in the middle of early tidal wave called mobile internet boom.  By 2016 most people will have internet-enabled devices in their hands, and we are already seeing junior high students carrying iPhones and Android devices (as discussed in the Miller's post).  This wide penetration of mobile devices are bringing many users to old and new social networks, and it is in turn bringing variety of user stories of communicating with their peers.

Consider written notes.  There have been many ways to write and leave notes for someone else.  Let's look at the two examples.

No sender, no recipient, no date.
Just scribble a note and stick it on to the recipient's desk.

Standardized size, well-understood format including
sender, recipient and date.
It even has a sender authentication scheme baked in.

One is hand written on Post-It.  The other is typed on letter sized paper with typewriter or Microsoft Word.  The both solve the same problem of capturing someone's note and reproducing it for the recipient(s).  But no one thinks of the two as having the same meaning.  There are times when a Post-It note will do.  There are times when you need to send a typed-up letter.

2. Social network as medium of choice to convey context

Once technology is commoditized, the user story is what determines how the tool is used.  When you are writing a note to jot down a grocery list, you are much more likely to reach for Post-It than booting up your machine to write it on Word (or reach for type-writer if you have one still).

Although you can achieve the same thing, yet there are dozens of way to take notes.  Because there are so many ways to solve the problem, you tend to choose the tool that best represents the type of note.

Same is true with social networks.  There will be dozens of social networks.  Depending on whom you are communicating with and how you want your message to be received by the recipient(s), you would choose your tool from dozens of choices.

Already LinkedIn is understood as professional network, while Facebook is considered to be personal social graph.  Twitter is a breaking news channel with link referral, and Pinterest is a photo magazine with design in mind.  You wouldn't expect to get a note from your parents on LinkedIn inbox.

3. Social network can copy features, but users will stick to their familiar user story

Facebook can copy Whatsapp and Snapchat's feature set, and launch new services identical to them.  In fact Facebook has.  However, this does not mean users will stop using Whatsapp and Snapchat, and use Facebook instead.

That's because Facebook remains as news feed of personal friends and family social network with interest graph.  Any new service Facebook adds will not drastically change how Facebook is known to the user, thus how it is used by users.  Note that the story that user tells about Facebook is different from what is possible do to with Facebook because of shelfware effect.

In the earlier analogy even if printer takes a Post-It-sized paper and Word supports hand-written font, it's hard to imagine anyone reaching for Word.  Conversely even if Post-It came in letter size, no one expects formal correspondence written on yellow Post-It with sticky on the back.

There is no technical reason why they cannot be used interchangeably.  It's all about the social norm.  Once the story became a part of everyone's psyche, it's very difficult to change.


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