What any social network needs to succeed, and how to get there

The value of any social network resides in its userbase. Quora and Reddit are great because of the quality and intelligence of the discussions on them, YouTube is successful because of the amount of video uploaded to it, Twitter and Facebook are popular and ubiquitous because everyone — individual or organization — seems to have an account. Flickr was the photography favorite because of its community, and Path only works if close friends use it as well. The lack of a userbase is the reason many interesting startups have failed; sites like Digg and Myspace were superseded when users migrated to Reddit and Facebook, respectively. Why was Google+ more successful than Buzz? Sure, it was a better product. But more importantly, people actually used it (Wave was also interesting, but without mainstream adoption, it wasn’t worth the continued investment from Google).

There has to be something great about a social site for it to gain initial traction, but it is sustained, and its real value created, by those who use it.

This is essential to any new social network or service, but especially one explicitly intended to replace an existing popular network, like distributed alternatives to centralized services.

While there are exceptions, where sites come out of nowhere and grow organically, that’s not something that can be designed: it’s a matter of a great service, the right time, dedication, and usually, a fair amount of luck.

A userbase — the most important element — can’t be magically created. It has to be earned, and many great networks and services fail simply because they don’t achieve the necessary adoption. A shortcut, then, is to leverage an existing network. Build something that integrates with existing services, and eventually, it may overtake them. Maintaining compatibility creates a seamless transition.

Even behemoths like Facebook and Twitter recognize the need to integrate with existing communication networks — that’s why they work with SMS and email.

Just look at the way Spotify exploded after being tightly integrated with Facebook. Then look at Apple’s Ping, which had its planned Facebook support fall through at the last minute. iTunes is ubiquitous for music — but Ping is, at this point, a failure.

But being able to update other networks is nothing; pretty much everything can do that, whether it’s useful or not. It sure didn’t save Myspace. The real killer feature: being able to read from other networks; essentially, serving as an aggregator and a standalone network. Then you don’t have to amass a superior userbase, you just have to build a superior product, and hope that enough users will migrate for the userbase to stand on its own.

Imagine, for example, an open source, distributed alternative to Facebook, like Diaspora. Most people aren’t going to switch over, because Facebook works fine (and more importantly, their friends are already on Facebook).1 But if the new network offers something different or better, while remaining compatible with Facebook, then there’s incentive to switch. There’s the content and the larger network of Facebook, combined with whatever advantages the new network has, like a simpler design, bringing several networks together or control of one’s information (and better privacy controls, but that’s canceled out while one continues to post to Facebook). If the new network has significant advantages over Facebook (or whatever other service it aims to replace), word will spread, and more and more people will start using it. Eventually, there will be no need to use it and Facebook: the standalone network will replace aggregation as the primary appeal. While unlikely, this is entirely feasible — but only if the transition is seamless and transparent.2

It’s still important, above all, for there to be a compelling reason to switch (which effective aggregation itself can be). Maintaining compatibility with other services simply helps ease the transition. Because no matter what new fangled features or promises of privacy and control a network or service has, nothing can compare to simply having the right people using it.

That’s what Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Quora, YouTube, Path, Foursquare, Reddit, your address book and other successful networks have going for them. And it’s what, at this point, Diaspora, StatusNet, Appleseed, Myspace, Ping, Digg and other struggling (or failed) networks mostly lack.

Related: The value of dominant market share for web services and platforms

  1. I signed up for Diaspora today and connected it to Facebook. On Facebook, I try to only add people I know and have just over 200 friends, and only a single one, someone I met once at a conference, was on Diaspora. As for Twitter, where it’s mostly people I’ve never met (and more technology-focused, early adopter type people), there was no way to see which users were also on Diaspora. Even if it were a superior service, it’s useless without allowing me to connect to the people who matter. 

  2. This scenario was laid out by Eben Moglen during an informal discussion after his speech at FOSDEM in February 2011, as how a “federated” social network could replace a centralized one. “What we need to do in order to make federated social networking good, is to offer people one aggregation, of all the data that they get and give over the old centralized networks, and the new, federated systems, both,” he said. He envisioned a service that would aggregate from networks like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. “As more of your friends move, more and more of your social network data is being transmitted over secure routes, and less and less over centralized, which you never have to know, because your aggregator shows you the same view, the same friends, exchanging the same material, regardless of whether the route is secure or nonsecure,” he explained, “So people just quietly, peacefully, two at a time, move. And everything begins to leave the system, without your ever leaving your friends.” He emphasized that the technology must “make migration transparent, and basically frictionless.” 

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