Saturday, June 14, 2008

Social Networking's Tipping Point and the Sub-Cultures of MySpace and Facebook

Yesterday, a friend told me about an NPR report on how MySpace is doing a re-design to try to compete with Facebook. Darned if I can find that NPR story today, but I was able to find something about this in Businessweek. As we were talking about this, I brought up how I think that, no matter what it's re-design, that MySpace couldn't gather the Facebook business crowd due to the nature of the MySpace culture....

Sure enough, Eric Eldon has written this insightful piece in Venture Beat on the differences between the MySpace and Facebook cultures:
“At first we were worried about MySpace, but then we realized that people use it differently from our site,” an employee at social network Facebook told me over a year ago. What he meant is that Facebook is a place for people to put their real lives online, providing factual information about themselves and having trusted interactions with their friends. Meanwhile, rival MySpace is more of a place for people to live out their fantasy lives online, borrowing celebrity photos for their profile pictures, adding far-fetched biographical information and such — MySpace uses the term “self-expression” to describe this behavior.

Now, I'll agree with Eric that this is something of a generalization, but there's a great deal of truth in it. As I explained to my friend last night, I've seen some really strange things on MySpace--women Of A Certain Age leaving highly suggestive illustrations with messages like "Kiss, Kiss!" on the profile pages of men Of A Certain Age. Pages are very messy and weird-looking with all sorts of flashing and sparkling things, with random people "friending" one another. And what can you say for a site that has, as one of its most popular people, a chick whose popularity was built on not-so subtle sexual suggestion? MySpace is very much, like Eric suggests, a place where people create personnas and behave in ways the buttoned-down business world might not.

Facebook, in comparison, is fairly tame--if you take into consideration that most of the excessive drinking and wet t-shirt photos are on profiles of college-aged people. Most of my Facebook friends are business associates, many of them marketers, and even though there's a conviviality between us, there's nary a wet t-shirt or beer bong photo. Among the Business Class of Facebook users, there's pretty much a buttoned-down, family man kind of mentality. When I first put up my profile, I said my relationships were "complicated" and my religion was "lapsed academic Catholic" (or something of that sort.) Fairly tame--but a friend told me I had the most interesting profile he'd read! Which, of course, made me laugh.

Being interesting on Facebook doesn't require posing in black lace underwear and stripper shoes. It takes just a bit of innuendo and perhaps a book list that includes the Russ Meyer biography....

Then again, the purpose of Facebook is different. When Facebook opened its doors to the general populace, last May, the marketing and tech industries flocked to it--because Facebook profiles allowed us to have personal information that LinkedIn, its rival at the time, didn't. Construct a profile with a pic and *some* personal information, find affiliations, and create groups. This has been great for the marketing community, with great groups like Marketing 2.0 and Social Networking Analysis: On-line Roles, Community & Network Weaving

I can't see the folks who comprise my sector of the marketing community flocking to MySpace, no matter how clean the interface and how much more "professional" it might look. Many within the marketing community are cognizant of the culture of MySpace and don't look to infiltrate it to be social there. Yes, they are interested in how it works, and how marketing can be brought into MySpace, but the big agencies are more than willing to hire someone young enough who knows the culture--not try to retrofit our 40-something buttoned-down selves into that culture.

And what of the tech folks I know, who are burnt out on social networking and all that stuff? Well, tech-blogger friend Jason Karashino seems to be really into social networking tool Friendfeed--and from what I can tell, he's not alone.

And I've also heard of some young people, once they get to college, migrating most of their social networking profiles to Facebook, taking out most of the MySpace info, and leaving MySpace only to connect with those friends who haven't crossed over into college (or who still feel most comfortable on MySpace.) Yet many of this group of young people have no idea that they need to groom their Facebook profile before the decide to join the professional world....

So, while MySpace may still have captured the minds (and ears) of a particular group of people, and that marketers will always want to find a way to tap into that space in a social networking way, I doubt that there will be a rush from the overall business community into MySpace. The rush to Facebook happened in part due to particular weaknesses in LinkedIn. Yet since its upgrade, I imagine LinkedIn has seen something of a rise in usage--actually, I've seen more messages from LinkedIn connections in my Inbox recently than I have in the whole 2 years I've had that profile....

Then again, maybe the whole social networking thing, in the U.S. anyway, has hit a tipping point. Om Malik notes how Monster's Tickle, Conde-Nast's Flip, and a tiny, virtually unknown Verizon social network (of 18,000 users) are being shuttered. Maybe we're all tired, are taking our balls and going home...or at least consolidating our home field advantages.

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