Hat tip to Stuart Brown.
I joined Facebook on the weekend. I resisted as long as I could.
I couldnâ€™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 dÃ©jÃ vu. It seems like such a short time ago that MySpace was the place to be in terms of social networking – now it seems thatâ€™s all over and Facebook is now the â€™site du jourâ€™.
Itâ€™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 itâ€™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 – itâ€™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). Itâ€™s firmly in the â€˜crunchâ€™ phase of start-up sites – the â€˜Valley of Uncertaintyâ€˜.
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 â€˜Plateau of Ubiquityâ€˜, 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 – itâ€™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, itâ€™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 donâ€™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 Iâ€™ll see you all on Facebook. For now, at least.