I’m a bit of a regular at Future Human events, and a few weeks ago I attended their session ‘Social Animals’ – exploring how (and if) social networks are changing our personalities. It was an interesting session for a number of reasons, but one of the big take away points for me was around the fragmentation of social media – the idea that a number of factors are beginning to chip away at Facebook’s monopoly of social media, leading to fragmentation of social media into lots of smaller communities and networks.
One of the panel at the event was Alex Halliday, founder and CEO of Social Go, an online service that allows users to create their own, interest focussed, social networks. He talked about the fact that lots of social networkers are not restricting themselves to the big networks – Facebook, Twitter etc – but are turning away from these mass, general sites to more close-knit communities, where users can unite around objects of common interest. Obviously Alex’s business model is built on this idea, so he has an interest in talking it up, but it rang true. With so many people getting their ‘social media training’ on Facebook – and becoming accustomed to social tools and user experience styles through it – it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that users are taking these skills and knowledge and using them elsewhere on the web – elsewheres that perhaps in pre-Facebook days were principally the domain of fanboys and geeks.
Obviously Alex is not the only one to be thinking like this. The inexorable rise of Facebook may have shifted our attention away from community sites, but they are thriving still – look at the Daddy of them all (if you’ll forgive the pun), the all-powerful Mumsnet. And what’s more, community sites are building in more ‘social’ features as championed by Facebook, Twitter and Google+ to make them more useful to users. Other commentators such as Jack Wallington over on Brand Republic’s Wall Blog have talked in more depth on this niche network phenomena.
Another angle to the fragmentation theory is the social network Path which limits each user to 50 followers and cites Dunbar’s number as its rationale for doing so (there is an upper limit to the amount of people that an individual can know personally whilst also knowing how each person relates to one another – and it’s a lot less than the number of Facebook friends most people have). I find this a lot more interesting, as its often cited as a reason that we will never have a truly global society, or true homogenisation – yes we may have the same brands on our high streets, but our cognitive limitations mean that we will never be exactly the same.
Place these two ideas (the rise of nice communities and Dunbar’s number) against a backdrop of stories about Facebook losing users in its most established markets, and some people start putting two and two together and making five.
I think its early days to make any sort of rash forecasts about the demise of Facebook at the hands of smaller communities – there have always been smaller niche communities online, and there always will be – that doesn’t mean people don’t want to talk to their larger ‘friend’ base as well as a group of strangers they are linked to through common interest. I also think Facebook will be remiss if it doesn’t up its niche interest game – after all, from a monetisation perspective, Facebook’s revenue comes squarely from knowing as much about its users as possible to allow for high levels of targeting. But I do think there is something to the Dunbar’s number criticism. I think eventually we start to feel overwhelmed by the numbers, and we either ignore a huge amount of people we’re friends with – only actively responding to and interacting with a relatively small sub-group within our friend lists, go through mass culling exercises, or in some extreme cases drop out of Facebook altogether.
I’d love to generate a bit of discussion around this as I find the way the internet is developing in front of our eyes – and the way it’s so hard to predict – fascinating. So let me know your thoughts and leave a comment below!
This post originally appeared on my company blog, here.