5 reasons why social networks fail

I was recently invited by Jason Calacanis to A Small World, the uber-exclusive social network (don’t ask for invitations, it’s a privilege I haven’t been granted since I’m a newcomer there). This has prompted me to think about a number of issues relating to social networks in general. In this entry, I will try to look at why social networks fail. Subsequent entries will focus on why they succeed and what opportunities they create. 

So without further ado, here are five reasons why social networks fail: 

5. Privacy concerns 

The first reason I would highlight, and part of the reason why social networks have not really gained much traction outside of a self-selected group of people is the amount of privacy concerns that exist within certain age groups. Younger people are generally more immune to those but older people tend to worry about what the social networks in question do with their data and are worried that they will either be data mined or that they will suffer from identity theft. This anxiety has largely been driven by media emphasis on how your data on the Internet is unsafe and how there are “nefarious characters” running around the net. 

4. No real reward or penalty system 

Most social networks are putting a heavy emphasis on how many connection a user have. A user’s worth is based on his/her number of connection, not on the quality of those connections. This tends to drive a lot of people to try to connect to as many people as they can. Mary Hodder likens this effort to collecting baseball cards, an apt metaphor since the number of connections you have is no guarantee of the value of those connections.   

However, few of the social networking sites are doing anything to gate the amount of connection. One of the nice thing on asmallworld is that it actually penalizes people for sending out invitations that were declined. I believe this is a good thing as it makes people rethink whether they want to attempt a connection or not. 

The other question is the reward in social networking: what do I get for sharing my contacts? We know what the companies get but it’s sometimes fuzzier to see what extra value one gets from a social network. Some have done a good job at showing a sense of mission, whether it is job-related and expertise-related connectivity like connections LinkedIn or dating like… well, this is where it gets trickier.

3. Not granular enough

Context is generally missing from most social networks. For example, I may know Bob in a social context as a friend but I have no idea of how good an employee he is. Or I may know Joe in a work context but not realize that he’s not dating material for my friends. The lack of granularity as to the types of relationships is another current failure of most social networking sites.

The other thing that is missing from social network is a more fine-tuned approach to ranking relationships. Relationships are not binary. It’s not either someone is my friend or not. The truth of the matter is that relationships are very granular in nature: I may be a close friend to John, whom I’ve known for 20 years and hang out with on a daily basis and I may have been a friend with Peter in the past but haven’t seem him in 10 years. Yet, to a social network, if I added both of them as friends, we have the same types of relationships.

Similarly, there seems to be a trigger missing for evolving relationships: what if my relationship with Peter has been slowly degrading over time. Do I kick him out as a friend (an option few networks allow) or do I keep him on my list. This granularity is missing and it is odd that it doesn’t exist as it would be relatively easy to capture this data.

Situational relevance is another factor that is largely ignored by social networks today: in what context does that network function. It’s something that needs to be more granularly defined than the catch-all approach of existing implementations.

2. Not integrated with other apps

Should social networks be standalone apps or is social networking just a feature? There is really little value in knowing people just for the sake of knowing people. However, there is value in interfacing with those people, whether it is to find a job, get some information from a subject matter expert, find money, or get a new date.

I believe the real value of social network sites to the end user will eventually be discovered when they start integrating with other components like email and IM. Presence (is the person online or not), location services (where in the physical world is the person right now) and communication (can I phone/IM/email/page them now) would add greatly to the value of social networks.

However, at the current time, few efforts have been made to integrate the social networks with other apps. Which brings me to the biggest reason why social networks fail: 

1. Walled Gardens

At the end of the day, social networking sites are walled gardens. They do not want to share information with others for fear that it will dilute their power as THE central hub for all relationships. This lack of interoperability is the primary problem with social networking sites and, I believe, one of the reason why their growth is impeded. A network that would be willing to open up could see better integration with other tools and could benefit from other sites connecting to it and creating more specialized sub-networks. For example, a large social networking site could become a large repository of a number of relationships with smaller sites looking at it to specialize across horizontal uses (for example, creating a site focused on dating or job search) or vertical ones (for example, a site focused on information exchange between subject matter experts within one particular domain)

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About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.

  • Fabian

    Dear Tristan,

    great post. I especially agree with your second point (missing integration with other apps), but want to point you to a webservice that is about to launch in september. At its heart it’s a browser extension that allows users to build trusted social networks with other users from which they want to get page ratings from while browsing or searching the web.
    Basically we just use social networking for the distribution of metadata (ratings, tags, comments etc.), that otherwise comes from anonymous (=not necessarily trustworthy) sources.
    It’s old page and documentation can be found here: http://getoutfoxed.com

    We are currently in a closed beta testing phase and I’d love to invite you to it. If you’re interested, just drop me a line!

    Best,

    -Fabian

  • http://princesssarah.ca Princess Sarah

    i think facebook.com does the job best.

  • http://www.nata2.org harper

    Whats funny – is that fulfills all these rules.

    No interoptibility, Ran by a former spam company, Not integrated with anything, too big, and no obvious reward or penalty system.

    Yet it is the biggest and craziest website ever. wtf.

  • dave

    have you actually looked for any of these sites? you sound completely out of touch with what you are trying to comment on.. Add/remove friends, pms, email, skype, icq, all these things have been around in social network communities for years. And you say: “There is really little value in knowing people just for the sake of knowing people.” Did you stop to think that the biggest social networks are friends sites? People want to know people for making friends, not to use them or sell them out to make money!
    Try typing penpals, mailfriends, friends communities, or anything similar into search engines and you might learn something. You sound like someone telling us it would be a good idea if phones were portable (the things you are talking about have already happened!!!!)
    Regards, dave

  • themaskedman

    I think you are totally out of touch too. You are missing the whole point of these things. These AUGMENT real world relationships… who the hell wants to have FIRST contact with someone through one of these. Not me nor any of my friends. We use these to keep in touch with people we ALREADY know or have met. The things that you are talking about are almost all irrelevant to what we actually are using MySpace and Facebook for.

  • http://www.tnl.net/blog/ Tristan Louis

    Dave: I’m actually on quite a few social networks and, apart from linkedin, most of them have been completely useless to me.

    TheMaskedMan: If their sole purpose is to augment real world relationships, then they are not really social networks (in the traditional sense of the term). MySpace and Facebook are useful as points of identity and connection with others but what “networking” value do they provide. I understand they work as social space but how do they work on the second axis of the equation?

  • http://www.bigdreams.ca/ Duncan

    I have been in several groups over a number of years. It depends on what you put into a group as to what you get back. As my life has changed, I have moved away from some groups and toward others. It can be a lot of work.

  • kenobi

    I’ve yet to visit a network where I don’t think ‘what now?’. Okay, it’s a ‘lean back’ activity for people who want to browse / kill time, but man, I can think of better ways. Social networks are nothing new – they’re blogs with a greater emphasis on the the ‘my favourites / related links’. Only now they’re called ‘friends’.

  • Nate

    Privacy concerns are far and beyond the top reason why social netoworks fall. Myspace is being constantly charged for certain security issues because nobody tells real information and people begin talking to people they thought were around their age with the same interests. While Myspace now exists as the #1 site, it is going to have to chance some of its systems or else HUGE problems will arise.

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  • Strafverteidiger München

    […] Tristan Louis lists some reasons why social networks may fail. One reason is that people pay attention to their privacy and are not willing to share all their private data. Tristan also says that such networks have to get more integrated with other applications and have to stop their existence as “walled gardens”. […]

  • http://socialnisite.cz Sociální sítÄ›

    I think social networks can produce revenue not only for owners of a net, but also for members.