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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Teens: MySpace is So Last Year; Hello, Facebook

Are teens like canaries in a mine, warning of a downturn in MySpace's fortunes? A Washington Post article examining the phenomenon of teens leaving MySpace for the greener, more private pastures of Facebook raises questions whether MySpace will inherit the fate of once-high flying Friendster. Just this February, Friendster logged peak usage of 3 hours and 3 minutes (that's how long users typically spent on the site). Last month, that sank to a low of 7 minutes. A host of other examples including Xanga illustrates the lack of stickiness of most social networking sites.

While teens are notoriously fickle and the article relies mostly on anecdotal tales for the meat of its story, it raises an interesting point about the sociology of social networking sites. There are two primary rules governing whether or not a given user joins a social network:
1. Follow your friends: Where your friends are, you tend to go. So if they decide to move to Facebook, you'll eventually move there too.
2. Follow the crowd: The more users of a site, the more attractive it is. Publicity and activity get users to sign up and stay.
There's a sort of herd instinct that causes groups of users to move from one site to another. Users can spend hours decorating and customizing their profiles, and when there doesn't seem to be any tangible utility (pleasure/satisfaction) gained, they move on. Whether it's the fading novelty value or creepy online predators, users are looking for better alternatives to the more diffuse structure that MySpace offers. Which is where Facebook comes in.

Although there has been worry that opening up Facebook to the general public would cause a user backlash, this strategy of openness might provide a much needed stimulus. After all, there are only so many colleges and college students, which although a self-renewing population is nonetheless a small fraction of the total social networking user population. The "silo" structure of Facebook may actually prove to be a positive aspect of the site. With greater worries about privacy and security, users are looking for ways to limit who can see their profile. Facebook's networks (college, work, regional) are general enough that they don't limit the amount of social interaction as much as, say, making your profile private except to your friends on MySpace. The potential network effects aren't dampened as much, and the plus is that there's a higher probability of actually getting to meet your online friends in real life.

Perhaps the canaries are pointing toward a more general move toward verification-based social networks although hopefully not as drastic as that China is attempting to implement.

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