The Future of Social Networks




Why not start the new year by looking at the exciting future of Social Networks, and show why Google is best positioned to own it.

Social networks have been mostly driven by Zuckerberg’s “Social Utility” vision. Even Dalton Caldwell who made a big splash last year when clashing with Facebook, has argued that Facebook is no longer committed to that vision and got funded by kickstarters to carry the torch.

The vision of a Social Utility will disappear

There is no need to create a BOLT diagram to understand how limiting that vision is. Just have a look at the resource model of “the social utility” that Dalton is now building:

  • users
  • posts
  • messages
  • streams
  • interactions (as in like, repost, …)

The problems with the Social Utility Model are that:

a) it’s too easy to build: there are many technologies that  would allow anyone to create a custom social back-end in minutes. Why would I need a rigid one controlled by Facebook, Google or App.net? (more on that later).

b) it has no (large scale) viable business model: who could believe even for a second that a hundred billion market cap hides behind people bragging about what they have done, seen, read…? That is now clear to everyone after the Instagram debacle. Any rumor about  Facebook’s nth attempt to find a sustainable business model propagates like wildfire (such as selling access to a mailbox that nobody ever uses, $100 per email. Really?) Would these rumors exist if Facebook and the Social Utility model were running on an established business model?

c) this is not what people want: by the end of 2013, generalist social networks focused on reporting the past with posts, likes and streams will be experiencing a massive disruption from dozens, if not hundreds, of topical social networks focused on the future, focused on making activities happen with friends (who really cares about followers?). The Social Utility will lose that war.

The amazing fact of that story is that Google owns the key to Facebook’s demise, but of course, not by competing with this powerful incumbent head on, as yet another social utility like Google+. That space has already matured enough to follow a sustainable innovation path. Google can compete by orchestrating a “multidimensional” attack empowering as many topical social networks to chip away the time people spend on Facebook, one post at a time.

Let me explain.

Most people have 5 to 10 major interests in their lives. Whether it is food, gym, sports, kids, music, gaming, shopping, photography, movies, professional interests, stocks, medical, reading, homework … Circles focused on interests rarely intersect and gather true friends, not “followers”. Actually, most people don’t want people they don’t know showing up in their lives like on Google+. People are also far more interested in making things happen and organizing their future than bragging about their past to a bunch of anonymous followers. Could a generalist social network like Facebook or Google+ be in the position to organize everyone’s life around any interest, in any region?

I already moved away from Facebook and Google+ to the value I find in Linked In for everything professional and I am sure I am not the only one, nor the last one. The value of my network is not about its size but  about the activities I do with it. That is disruptive, and there is no amount of posts, instagrams or some magical Graph API that can resist that disruption.

For instance, I can’t wait until Starbucks adds its app the “I am having a coffee here, meet me if you’d like” social network. Does anyone think that someone other than startbucks could integrate with their POS a signal sent to “all my friends nearby” ?

 

Automated social events, integrated with the tasks consumers are doing are going to be a big part of the future of Social Networks. If for nothing else, there is a huge business model behind it.  Could Facebook or Google really play at that level other than helping with the plumbing? I don’t think so and the benefits for companies such as Starbucks are just too big to pass on.

If given the choice, what would you prefer? a big bragging machine full of people you can’t actually relate to or a way to make your life more enjoyable?

Google owns the key to that world

The Social Utility vision is focusing on the wrong problem: the Web has trained the pundits to always seek scale and commoditization because that is the only way people have made money on the Web. Today, things are different, very different. Mobility is totally and forever changing the game: mobility moves the value consumers seek towards the integration with the tasks they want or need to accomplish (in a perfect Innovator’s Solution case). 

The key problem for that world to exist is to enable people to find their friends easily on these interest focused social networks. If there is one or two social networks, then you look for your friends there. But if there are hundreds, how do you know which ones your friends have joined?

Such a fragmented world can achieve scale too, but in a very different way when compared to the Social Utility model: with protocols not platforms and Google is best positioned to win it entirely. Here is why.

With Android (and gmail), Google owns your friend’s contact list. In the future of social networks there is no data more valuable than that list and only a very few trusted companies like Google can mine that value. The reason why Dalton thinks App.net has value over a custom built  social back-end is precisely because he thinks he can own the “users” and his platform can facilitate people joining independent social networks. However, his architecture (a social utility back-end) creates a big unwanted coupling between the list of friends and the data model that supports the activities that the social network focuses on. That unwanted coupling can only be resolved with a protocol, not some generic APIs or resources.

Your contact list is strategic

You may ask, how can a simple protocol conjugated to the most boring app on a device can change the future of Social Networks? It’s all about making it easy to establish relationships, as a matter of fact, as easily as devicely possible.

Google and its Platform has a unique ability to associate social network ids, with contact ids, in complete privacy. Users can then see the networks their friends have joined (with their consent), in the contact app, and touch the corresponding icon to add that friend to the corresponding social network app or join the network and add themselves to their friend’s circle (I used Google+ and Facebook icons for convenience, but really these icons will be the ones of the topical social networks that are currently being built).

Here is how it works for our two social networks (Face+ and GoogleBook):

a) User A joins a social network “Face+”, the app informs the Google platform (Android)

b) The platform notifies every friend’s that has a contact matching User A that user A has joined “Face+”.

c) User B has also joined Face+, he browses his contact list and either “selects all” or select his friend to add one by one.  All these friends are added to the User B’s friend list on Face+ and a notification is sent to the corresponding friends who can choose to add User B to their network.

What kind of protocol could Google design to achieve this “as-simple-as-possible” user experience? Here is a proposal (the protocol itself is just steps 1,6,7 and 9):

And voila, Google can raise an army of social networks to fight Facebook -in an epic Innovator’s solution textbook case. This could even be considered one of the first multidimensional disruption ever recorded.

Facebook cannot respond to that kind of disruption because it has no ability to own a clean contact list like gmail or your Android contact app (espically the contacts who can participate in activities), it will always be the second list, cluttered with followers, and there is only room for one list in everyone’s life. It will also not be able to integrate fast enough with people’s interests and activities, compared to hundreds of social apps built by passionate and knowledgeable people. Worse, in a strange twist, Facebook is allowing its users to add their friends to their on-device contact app, giving away the keys to their kingdom, one contact at a time…

Google+ was the wrong thing to do

With Google+, Google took possibly the worst possible path. Even Microsoft didn’t make that mistake. Just by implementing a simple protocol on top of existing components, Google could have taken down (and still can take down) a threatening competitor which is going after its advertising dollars. This approach would have been well aligned with Google’s DNA, which understands how to monetize an ecosystem of affiliates. It is just that this time around, unlike AdSense, they also needed to create the affiliates. Furthermore, there would have been little risk that Apple would react to that. They don’t chase this kind of opportunities, they see themselves as a sleek device company, not as a software company. When it comes to software and especially platform architecture, Apple’s mindset is a decade behind. But most importantly, and unlike the general Social Utility model, Google could bring a “unique” social touch to the Android community, unmatched in the mobile space. It could attract a large number of great social apps, all powered by strong business models like the imaginary “Let’s meet for Coffee” app. Imagine these apps combined with Google Now? Seriously, who could let this kind of opportunity go when all you need is a simple protocol and neither Apple or Facebook can catch up?

Here is the future of Social Networks:

  • friends over followers
  • future over past
  • activities over posts and pictures
  • protocols over platforms


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5 Responses so far.

  1. [...] The future of social networks – it’s search. [...]

  2. Dave says:

    The link in “many technologies” is broken.

  3. Phil Gibson says:

    Brilliant summary. You’ve captured the why would an adult want this perspective for when the faze matures well. The incumbents won’t just fade away, they’ll fight the migration you describe. Individuals will always migrate to the “non walled gardens” (protocols over platforms).

    • admin says:

      Thank you Phil, I really appreciate your comment. I am sure you will enjoy Part II, when I speak about the business model of that kind ecosystem. IMHO, the business model is so irresistible that the Social Utility will quickly fade (I am not talking about the Starbucks example I give here, which is level zero of the business model).

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