I keep wondering particularly about the latter question. It's one I'm sure major corporations ask themselves as well. Starbucks didn't have to start up mystarbucksidea.com, but could have built apps for Facebook and MySpace centered on a similar concept of allowing people to suggest Starbucks ideas and vote.
Even as millions of people who wouldn't have considered joining a social net a year ago do so now, it still, in many cases, doesn't have the reach of throwing social networking out on the Web. Take for example, IM Saturn, the private-label social network started by Saturn roughly a month ago. It currently has more than 1,400 members -- while, from what I could tell on Facebook, all of the disparate Saturn groups combined had less than that.
And the tools to build your own social net are easy. Saturn uses the platform provided by Ning, a company that promises anyone can build their own social network. As of this writing, there are more than 250,000 Ning-empowered social networks out there.
But I digress. What this explosion of proprietary social networks reminds me of is the blogosphere three or four years ago, when suddenly there was a plethora of free or cheap tools out there that would allow anyone to publish.
The cool thing with building your own social network is that the community features are so much more robust than what a simple blog can provide. Take a look, for example, at one currently featured on the Ning home page, http://www.brooklynartproject.com. A blog makes up part of the site, but it has updates on members who have changed their profiles, its own subgroups, a calendar and so forth. It's enough to make one wonder if those of us who run a blog today, with its primitive write-and-post functionality, will be running our own social net tomorrow.
If that's the case, you can wonder, as Social Media Insider reader Les Blatt does, what this ultimately means for sites such as Facebook and MySpace, which jump-started the social networking craze. He wrote to me several weeks ago, when I was doing my usual social-net empowered request for column ideas: "Here's a thought: Recently, I've found myself joining some very specialized social networks (via Ning) - one for writers, formed with other writers on LinkedIn; another for fans of jazz singer John Pizzarelli. ... Are we seeing a fragmentation of the broad, Facebook or LinkedIn oriented networks into smaller, more specific, overlapping networks?"
Good question -- but if the trend hasn't really taken hold yet, I think it will. Aggregation followed by disaggregaton seems to be a recurring pattern in the online world. There are a few apples in with the oranges in the following comparisons, but remember back when we all had an affiliation with an online service such as AOL and Compuserve, and those relationships gave way to the chaos of the Web? Or when the portals dominated the content business -- only to see their authority partially usurped by user-created content? Millions of social networks created by average citizens seems to be the logical evolution here, and while some of those will be groups within broader social networks, others will use freely available tools to create a more customized presence.
Blatt also wondered whether fragmentation within social networking creates "another reason to seek better portability of profiles and other social networking features." Seems the answer is an unqualified yes. Just as AOL and Compuserve found that they had to give users unfettered access to the Web to keep them happy, the big social nets will find they have to allow more portability. Strangely, it's a way to keep users in the fold. At least for a while.