Network Multiplicity – Are Facebook and Google Bound to Take Over the World and Destroy All Competition?

*Modified Image. iPad not actually on fire. Please, do not try at home.

Say what you will about the iPad — its size, design, price, necessity, cool factor, the hype, the coverage — but people sure are saying quite a bit. One interesting thread is around the impact the iPad will have on other devices, namely the extent to which it will replace or complement existing technologies. Although it is still too early to tell (and by the time we would be able to tell, the original question will probably be obsolete),  I’m of the opinion that we are moving away from device convergence and toward “device ubiquity.” While the iPhone and other smart phones are clearly changing the way we connect, consume and create, the computer is far from extinct and there’s clearly a growing market for something in between (e-readers, netbooks, etc.). Rather than converging, our devices are increasingly connecting — from Hulu shows feeding to TV screens  to seamless content shifting between mobile and landlocked devices.  Further, there is no one-size-fits-all content solution across devices, which has been painfully proven by the trials and tribulations of mobile search and advertising. The same content is thus malleable and perhaps fundamentally changed when it hits a different device.

The transition from one almighty device to many networked devices calls into question whether we will see a similar transition from one to many in the social networking space. Looking at the recent numbers, the answer seems like a straightforward no:

Facebook is clearly dominating the social space, and moreover, it’s competing with and beating Google, by some metrics. In terms of broad-reaching, multi-featured social networks, Facebook is the victor in the “social stickiness” war, a topic I’ve discussed in previous posts. It serves as the hub for networking, sharing, discovering, chatting, watching, blabbing,  stalking and general procrastination. That said, Facebook’s space in the market is not necessarily all-encompassing or mutually exclusive.

Take the chart above. LinkedIn is not faring as well in the number of unique visitors, but is that the right metric for a professional  networking and job search site? LinkedIn’s value proposition does rely on the number of members (and hence connections), but not necessarily on the number of  unique visits. Sure, it would be great to say that nearly 500 million professionals engaged in work talk  last month, but the quality of the networks and what those networks enable is far more important.  So long as a user’s profile exists, a latent user can still be a powerful connector. Comparing LinkedIn to Facebook using the unique visitor metric is pushing us into apples-to-oranges-land.

LinkedIn fits into a rapidly growing category of verticalized or niche social networking sites. These include sites that are organized around particular interests (e.g., LinkedIn, A Small World, myYearBook, Last.fm and the up and coming Jumo), organized by particular locations (e.g., GroupOn, Yelp, Brightkite), and a growing number that are nested at the intersection of interest and location to enable virtual and physical connectivity (e.g., MeetUp, Four Square, Buzzd).

The list of large, active social networking sites is in the 100’s, and that excludes dating sites. A quick search on CrunchBase of social networking companies yielded over 1,000 results. And this excludes the efforts of Google, Bing,  Yahoo and other big search players who are steadily encroaching into social territory (e.g. Google Buzz).

So will the big players like Facebook and Google make these niche sites obsolete by never enabling critical mass? Or do users seek out smaller or more focused communities in addition to the hub sites? Back to the original question, will we see network convergence or network multiplicity?

A few conjectures.

To approach the question scientifically, we would want to examine individual user behavior across sites. Particularly, how many social networks does a user belong to on average, how long do they spend on each site, and what types of activities does the user engage in on each. If there is enough overlap over a large enough sample of users (imagine a pretty big Venn Diagram), one could conclude that users do prefer multiple sites for multiple purposes (the same way we have multiple devices). Unfortunately, this analysis is far from simple, since we can’t follow Joe Shmo and Sean Jean without more traditional and high-priced market research, or some serious back-end analysis. (Techies out there, please correct me if I am wrong and this is actually simple).

Science aside, there is evidence of demand for niche social networking between the sheer number of sites with thousands of users and  the rapid growth with which competitors are popping up.  If the big players are able to create an interface or user experience that would mimic private or smaller networks, it is feasible that the smaller sites would fade into technology oblivion a la Friendster.

However, it’s unlikely that one hub will be able to be simultaneously broad-reaching and hyper-verticalized. Meeting the needs of a multiplicity of niches with a one-size-fits-all approach is bound to leave users wanting.

A third solution, then, might entail a broad-reaching hub hosting multiple verticals, with unique interfaces and user experiences. More concretely, Facebook could continue to serve the masses but also buy-up and host other sites, leveraging its scale to solve some of the revenue issues smaller sites likely face. Likewise, Google could establish a landing page for a user’s social networks, the same way it also customized news aggregation with Google Reader.

For now, we can continue to be twiddling observers and participants in the rise (and potential fall) of networks. As always, time will be the final judge.

Please share your rants or ruminations.

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