Typepad is like the ancient Buick Skylark I used to drive. Sometimes it flies, that killer 350 smacking down shiny Camaros out on Central Avenue. And sometimes it just answers with a cold, empty "click, click, click" when you turn the key. Today was the dead battery Typepad, so while I sat there unable to post, it got me thinking about these internets of ours.
Specifically about social networks, actually - those hotter-than-Hades social-bookmarking, social-tagging, and social-er-hooking-up sites that are sucking up more and more user time online, and more and more ink in the press.
First off, I'm not hooked.
Yeah, I use tags...sometimes. When I forget, I forget. Mostly I use 'em to keep track of stuff for myself, whether on Technorati or Flickr or my own blog. I don't use them to meet other taggers. Same thing with Delicious (when I can figure it out). The only other reason I use tags is the somewhat hypocritical notion that they'll deliver a larger audience. Both selfish reasons, unrelated to a wider sense of online community - for that, I rely on comments, both on my blog and the many other sites I track on a regular basis. Comments are social networking, to me.
I was thinking about this after reading a terrific post by Mark Hurst of Good Experience, who was hired by Delicious (again, no dots, I'm too tired) to help in making the site/service more user-friendly. Mark's key observation hit home:
Since we finished the project a few months ago, I've noticed a lot of attention in the press paid to this area. Every other week, it seems, there's a major story about "social bookmarking", "tagging", "folksonomies", or some such term. Despite the fact that the average user has no idea what these mean, and no easy way to reach the benefits, these stories proliferate. And here's why: techies are so adept at understanding these tools and reaping the benefits that they sign up in droves; journalists talk to techies to get story ideas; and voila! a new "hot trend" is born in the press.
Now, I'm something of a techie (slightly lapsed but recovering rapidly) and an early-adopter in these matters, but the benefit of spending hours creating a complex taxonomy for free, so that other users may somehow benefit (in mysterious and often unclear ways, as Mark points out) seems to come up a few dollars short of a bargain. This is something Joshua Porter over at his Bokardo blog took up in a post back in May (pointer by Mark):
Unfortunately, the ability to aggregate has blinded many software developers to think that tags are a cure-all to the success of their software. Tags have almost become a requisite feature in new software. I’ve received many emails in which developers try to sell me on the merits of their brand-new software based mostly on the ability of potential users to tag things, as if users inherently enjoy tagging things as a matter of course. Real people, in contrast, tag for their own benefit. And they surely won’t tag if the incentive to do so isn’t clear.
Aggregation, in general, is probably more effective as a second-order feature of software. If we create features just to aggregate them, without providing users with tangible value first, then people simply won’t use the features. My guess is that aggregation technologies which prove most useful will be ones that are added to some activity that users have already started doing without the promise of any aggregation benefits.
Still, you've seen the news about MySpace, haven't you? It's gotten more bytes in certain circles than the North Korean missile program - and in my book, the trajectory is just as steady. MySpace - where I spend zero hours and zero minutes per week because of age restrictions - is the new traffic leader, blowing by Yahoo and eBay in terms of total percentage of Internet traffic. According to Hitwise, 4.46% of all Web traffic is MySpace. That means Rupert Murdoch - who picked up MySpace for half a billion - is the king of social media, the master of tags, kaiser of social bookmarks.
I would have thought that for people of Murdoch's generation, "social bookmarking" conjures images of sweet old ladies gathering on Saturday nights to crochet lovely placemarkers for their Bibles and book club bodice-rippers. Pass the lemonade dear.
In reality, big media masters like Murdoch believe that anything pulling people away from their traditional properties must immediately be tamped down and defeated or purchased and rolled into their empires. And they're right, quite honestly. Big media companies, if they're to remain big media companies, have to evolve or die - these days, just faster. And yet, if people roll their own media, where's the value to content-laden media vaults like Fox or Time-Warner or Disney? Robert Young has a terrific essay over at GigaOm that raises more questions than it answers, but is well-worth reading. He argues:
But just as the Internet was not a subset of AOL, social media will not become a subset of traditional media. In fact, social media will increasingly begin to compete directly with traditional media consumption. Yes, it is true that the media output produced and distributed by the audience itself will generally be of lower production value and quality. Even so, they will prove highly competitive to Hollywood products, as the personal engagement factor inherent in personal media outweighs any loss of production value.
So given the competitive nature of social media and the operational challenges it represents, why should media companies even think of embracing social integration? Because they have no choice… social media will continue to take market share away from traditional media, regardless of whether the media companies participate or not.
Defense for the social media startups seems rather difficult: anybody with a server farm and slightly-tipsy naming committee can come up with the next YouTube or Flickr. New services hit the clickstream daily. But the connections that people are making seem to be permanent - or at least the time they take to make them seems as permanent as the time they take on telephone calls and email. Notes Fred Wilson:
So we may have to wait until the fall to see where all of this is headed but my sense is that "social media" is here to stay. The individual properties may rise and fall (remember Geocities and Tripod?), but the idea of media that is personal and social is a lasting one and an important one.
I agree that social media is a permanent addition to our media lives, but it probably won't resolve in one big company. MySpace is hot as hell, but how do you play defense in a company like that? When you give the people full power over the tools that create media, who knows how it shakes out? We may well face a media future with lots of smaller companies, a trove of tool and die manufacturers for the digital age and a vast media heartland of server farms. Which will be pretty cool to follow, actually.
Well, I notice that Typepad is back up so I can go in and start tagging. Ah forget it, I'll just drop this post in and call it a day.
UPDATE: Jay at Compete adds some original analysis to the MySpace vs. Yahoo debate (which apaprnetly matters to some people, though I'd say revenue and profits are better yardsticks). And Markos points to a Wired story that claims MySpace has been "Foxified" under Murdoch's reign. It apparently pulled a video critical of right-wing Sen. Ted Stevens (he of Bridge to Nowhere fame).