After the social networking sand settled with Facebook on top over the last half decade, the social behemoth seemed untouchable. Twitter, far behind in second place, wasn’t a direct competitor for a while, since it focused on public conversation and Facebook mostly targeted private, friends-only conversations. Google+ entered the picture and managed to shake things up a bit, making both networks question their own identities, adding new features left and right to try to be everything to everyone. Here we are, at the Social Network Identity Crisis of 2012, and it isn’t pretty.
While users are heavily invested in Facebook, the reasons people flocked to the site to begin with (simple social networking) to get away from the mess that was MySpace are starting to get overshadowed by an increasingly cluttered user experience. Meanwhile, Twitter is out in left field swinging like a blindfolded kid hoping to hit a home run, redesigning the experience to make it more mainstream-acceptable, but they’re still handicapped by 140 characters. And Google+ brags about its millions of users (90 million as of 5 days ago), but the numbers aren’t as impressive if you dig into how many people are actually using the network on a daily basis.
Facebook, set to IPO in the next few weeks, faces a whole new challenge of having to reveal quarterly earnings, which takes an ad-heavy network and pushes it to find new ways to monetize. Facebook surely has a lot of data to deliver ads against for its advertisers, but the only way to grow ad revenue is to either grow its user-base at an exponential rate, or keep people on the site much longer.
Since continuing to grow the user base is a challenge once you have 900M users, you’re faced with focusing on how to get as many people as possible to spend as much time on your site as possible. In a blog entry, Gregory Lyons of iCrossing recently acknowledged that Facebook’s growth in the U.S. and U.K has slowed or even stopped, but he expects India and Brazil, among other nations, to fuel continued growth to 1 billion users by August. Still, Facebook’s most valuable users are the ones in the United States and other key marketers that marketers with big budgets are targeting.
Mashable writes, “to put Facebook’s massive size in perspective, Twitter now claims about 100 million active users, LinkedIn has 130 million members and Google+ had around 49 million total visits in December, according to Experian Hitwise. That researcher predicts Google+ will have 400 million users by the end of this year.”
The total community numbers are sexy, but the real numbers that matter is time on site by users that the advertisers want to target. How do you keep people on a site longer? There’s plenty of ways to do this, but Facebook clearly knows that the more of your online experience it can tie into its platform, the more time you’ll spend looking at the ads they serve up.
It’s pretty a simple business equation borrowed from a traditional media model, but going from an elegant social network for friends only, serving the purpose of stalking exes, making relationship official (or complicated), and connecting with new friends, to an online social content destination is a bigger leap than Facebook wants to admit. And even if it has the right way to handle the large problem from a design perspective, a very vocal user base that likes things the way they are wouldn’t handle any major changes. So the changes occur in a sidebar ticker, or a subscribe button, which aren’t fully thought out enough to support the actual user experience they enable.
That said, they probably also work. I’ve spent more time on Facebook with Spotify and Pinterest now enabled, and I’ve enjoyed engaging with journalists through subscribe. I’ve used it less and less as a place to talk to my friends. I occasionally click on relevant ads, much more often than I click on ads on Google unless I’m searching for something very specific to buy that ads are targeted against.
Still, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are all walking towards each other, instead of focusing on being unique social networks that serve different needs. They’re all different channels serving up the same content in slightly different accent, and Twitter happens to just be extremely terse, and Google+ uses bigger words in long form at a slightly higher reading level. All three are suffering an identity crisis. The unfortunate reality is that as they all try to be the same thing, the user experience suffers. There is currently a lag between “Connected TVs” going mainstream, enabling social content around television media (we already have it around music and news/blog media), so the social networks have to do whatever they can to produce / curate / source content that keeps you on the site. That means user experiences being optimized to surface content from across the web, with Facebook leading the curve on this with their gestures enabling many companies to send user activity data into the Timeline and Ticker.
All of that activity results in so much clutter. It is extremely refreshing to then use social experiences that are simple, elegant, and aren’t filled with the world-wide kitchen sink. Pinterest is a great example of this. Pinterest allows users to “pin” images and videos from anywhere on the web onto “boards.” Users can create boards on any topic. While the site started out more geared toward women to pin fashion, wedding, and home decorating-type content, it has fast grown to the hottest startup on the web. It’s not a very complicated site, and in fact its search functionality is extremely basic. You view pins, you pin, you share, you collect, you express. It’s an extremely simple user experience powered by basic gamification mechanics. And the brilliant business model behind Pinterest is that the content itself is the ads. It doesn’t require complicated collaging ala Polyvore (which is really fun to do but targets a much more niche crowd.) Anyone can pin, and pin anything. While Pinterest now ties into Facebook’s ticker and timeline, the startup has long stood on its own as a thriving relatively new community. It is a breath of fresh air outside of the three social networks that are looking more and more like each other and might as well be named Facetwitbook+.
I predict that in 2012 and 2013, more and more of these simple, yet useful social experiences around specific topics will become more and more popular. The web as a whole has lagged behind social networks in terms of interactive user experiences, as for a long time there didn’t seem to be much point in competing — there were brochure sites and social networks, and the two remained separate. But it will certainly be an exciting few years in social UX, as the Great Social Network Identity Crisis of 2012 may just open doors for a whole host of new social networking experiences in the most unexpected places.