Thursday, November 8, 2007

Social network distinctions: the ego and the object

Those of us working with brands eager to get into some kind of social networking action (if only they because they are so excited to see that consumers will talk about their brands for free) know how challenging it can be to explain the differences among the various options, let alone make a strong strategic case for the impact or sustainability of one play over another.

Fred Stutzman over at unit structures has a whole bunch of smart and well-researched ideas on the subject worth checking out. But over the past week, in response to the recent announcements about Google's Open Social and FB's Social Ads, he's articulated some particularly useful and provocative claims about the viability of social networks in two posts: here and here.

He starts with a distinction between ego-centric network which places the individual at the core of the network experience (FB, Friendster, Orkut) and object-centered networks which place a social object at the center (Digg: news item; Flick: photo). And then goes on to suggest the source of value in each network model:
Object-centric social networks offer core value, which is multiplied by network value. A great photo-hosting service like Flickr stands alone without the network, making it less susceptible to migration. An ego-centic network, on the other hand, has limited core-value - it's value is largely in the network - making it highly susceptible to migration. We see this with Myspace: individuals lose little in terms of affordances when they migrate from Myspace to Facebook, making the main chore of migration network-reestablishment, a chore made ever-simpler as the migration cascade continues.

They key to maintaining value, says Stutzman, is maintaining situational relevance. But once ego-centric networks lose that relevance, their days are numbered. FB still has a lot of growth left in it, but eventually, Stutzman suggests, we'll be moving on to another bar down the street, no matter what they do to spruce the place up.
Try as they might, once ego-centric social networks lose situational relevance, its pretty much impossible for them to retain their status. Myspace users have exhausted the Myspace experience; they've done all they can do, they've found all the people they can find, so now its time to find a new context. We naturally migrate - we don't hang out in the same bar or restaurant forever, so why would we assume behavior would be any different online?

Here's where I get to my point: It's all about networks. The coolest tools, the best exclusive media - these are only "fingers in the dam" to keep users in non-situationally relevant spaces. Networks naturally migrate from place to place - slowly at first, followed by a cascade as switching costs decrease - and no tools or content or affordances can really stop that.
Agree or disagree, Stutzman's points offer a useful conceptual foundation for thinking through the right social network fit.

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