The rise and fall of Social Networking

Hat tip to Stuart Brown.

I joined Facebook on the weekend. I resisted as long as I could.

I couldn’t help but notice a recent surge of other people I know signing up recently as well – nor could I shake off the odd sense of déjà vu. It seems like such a short time ago that MySpace was the place to be in terms of social networking – now it seems that’s all over and Facebook is now the ’site du jour’.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened, either – there have been countless communities online that have grown, peaked, and slowly faded into obscurity. Like a roving band of wildebeest, it seems communities arrive en masse, graze for a while, and move on to pastures anew.

The current crop of Web 2.0 sites seem to have amplified this trend – there are more and more sites cropping up with a community angle, so now people hungry for social interaction on the web have a near boundless choice for their communal appetites.

As surely as Facebook has risen to challenge MySpace, and as Digg has all but displaced Slashdot, in the not-too distant future there will be other sites which rise to threaten the current generation. Perhaps the MySpace killer is already out there, just waiting for a chance to break the mainstream?


The early days of a community site are its most fragile -most start-ups will fail without ever making it past this phase. Those familiar with running forums or sites with a community aspect will know how hard it is to get a sustained level of activity without a solid user base – avoiding the tumbleweed can be difficult.

With work and persistence some sites will begin to make headway – a small, closely-knit community can develop. Many community sites will persist at this level, with no real reason to change – others may get lucky and find a break – whether it’s a link from a major blog (TechCrunch or similar), getting on the front page of Digg (or Reddit, Netscape, etc), or even a news report or feature in the mainstream media.

Such buzz can cause a massive spike in traffic – propelling the previously unheard-of site into the view of thousands more people, and potentially kick-starting a chain reaction large enough to push into the mainstream. Of course, there are no guarantees – a spike in interest from a single link can come and go very quickly, with little net benefit.

The social networking site Virb has had its fair share of buzz – it’s been on Digg, been featured on a few high-profile blogs, but has a fairly modest Alexa ranking of around 5,000 (at the time of writing). It’s firmly in the ‘crunch’ phase of start-up sites – the ‘Valley of Uncertainty‘.

For Virb, there are two possible paths – the first is unfettered and gradually accelerating growth, the other is to remain in the doldrums indefinitely. With such a great deal of competition in the social networking sphere, it could go either way.

Facebook is the perfect example for a site currently in the midst of meteoric growth – from an Alexa ranking of around 50,000 in 2005 to around 100 in 2006, to 18 today in 2007. Little wonder that people are eager to acquire the site – even at a stupidly high price.

Such rapid growth is unsustainable, of course – and ultimately such popularity will reach a peak. There are but a finite number of people to populate any given social network, and humans are notably fickle creatures. Ultimately the usage levels for any given site will stabilise – social networking site Bebo and social news site Reddit are both in neutral-growth periods – not to say that future growth is impossible, but without intervention the user base is unlikely to spontaneously increase.

For the top few sites that attain popular appeal, a healthy period of traffic and utilisation follows the peak in usage – established services such as Flickr, MySpace and Digg have such sustained appeal that they persist at a relatively stable level – the ‘Plateau of Ubiquity‘, if you please. How long a site persists here depends on several factors, principally including the fierceness of competition and the rate at which a site can evolve to keep its users happy.

The internet is a fast changing place, and to hold a position of dominance with so many fresh upstarts is not easy. While a community site can revitalise, innovate and hence prompt additional growth, life at the top is tough. For many once-reigning sites a slow yet inexorable decline is inevitable. The once mighty Slashdot is still very popular – it’s in the Alexa Top 500 – but slipping further and further away from the pole position it once held, with younger upstart Digg usurping its audience.

Social networking and community-led sites dominate the top ranked sites on Alexa, second only to the search engine contingent. With such massive reach and the potential for direct marketing, it’s not in the least surprising that the top of such sites are seeing such lucrative buyouts – $580m for MySpace, $1.65b for YouTube, and a touted $1b for Facebook. I don’t doubt that some of these acquisitions are worth it – the potential to reach people directly on the sites where they spend most of their time is valuable indeed.

I guess I’ll see you all on Facebook. For now, at least.

Author: Jas

Jas Dhaliwal is a highly experienced International Social Media Strategist. Currently working as AVG Technologies, Director of Communities and Online Engagement, he specialises in building and engaging with social communities across the web. Born and bred in London, he is passionate about technology and social anthropology. Prior to AVG, Jas launched the social media program for Microsoft’s MVP Award program. Jas holds a BSc (Hons) in Information Systems and has an MBA from Brunel University in London, England. You can follow Jas as @Jas on Twitter or on Google+