"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," once remarked the eminent 19th century French writer and critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Carr -- “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Monsieur Carr may as well have been writing about the social media networks of the 21st century.
The concept of social networks is not a new one. They have been around for as long as people have gotten together around the fire to tell each other stories. In fact, one can argue that the Internet, as a whole, started off as one gigantic social network.
Even before the advent of Facebook people kept track of each other and communicated using email and chat. Before Twitter came along people posted their thoughts and feelings on boards and forums. The options for interaction were not too abundant, to be sure, and engagement was limited to the exchange of text. But even in that crude, early form, the Internet got people excited about the prospects and promise of a connected world.
Fast forward to today, and social media has exploded into a force that defines modern business and culture. Social media networks abound, each one providing for a specific dimension of human life, and each one offering its unique mix of tools for engagement and social interaction. Towering over all the social networks is Facebook, whose breadth, depth and coverage make it the online equivalent of a large, powerful country.
Facebook’s dominant position is further underscored by all the current hype and hoopla surrounding its imminent IPO. News of the social network titan’s upcoming public offering is resulting in a lot of jostling among insiders and wealthy investors seeking to cash in on this exciting opportunity. The frenzy may drive Facebook’s initial valuation to well over 100 billion dollars.
From another perspective, Facebook’s achievement may be seen as a milestone for business in particular, and human social innovation in general. It certainly marks an important milestone in the development and evolution of social media, one that prompts us to wonder what is in store for the technology from this point forward.
One of the interesting results of Facebook’s ascent is the adoption and refinement of its business model by a host of smaller social sites. Facebook is seen as THE social network that has successfully defined -- and will continue to define -- social media’s directions. But even with its impressive breadth and depth, Facebook cannot expect to provide everything its users want.
There will always be room for variations on the dominant model -- variations that drive the operations of scores of smaller, interest-specific social networks that have learned their lessons from Facebook’s success. Small, interest-specific social networks, in fact, appear to be the next step in the evolution of social.
They are the counter-culture to the Facebook monolith: sites that offer many of the features that enhance and encourage social interaction, but focus on one specific subject matter. There are social sites for practically any topic or interest -- from aircraft to zymurgy, and anything imaginable in between.
Each site serves a small niche that caters to a very specific audience and in most cases that audience will be very small, negligible in fact compared to Facebook’s massive user base. But these tiny islands of interest add up to an aggregate population of around 280 million people. Many believe this number should be higher, perhaps even approaching the 700 million users Facebook has, since many people have accounts on more than one network.
This is great news for marketers. For decades marketing people have looked toward segmenting their markets in order to target the prospects and customers that best fit their products and services. Interest-centered social networks represent a huge step in making this a much easier task for businessmen and entrepreneurs.