Social media has represented a dream venue for many young innovators in technology for the past few years. We watched as sites like Facebook and LinkedIn moved up in prominence, traffic, and power with simple concepts and goals fueled by venture capital. Many of us wanted a piece of the action, knowing that social media was something that would survive beyond the realm of fad and potentially eclipse other Internet functions such as search.
It may indeed eclipse search and even videos to become the most prominent Internet activity, but the field is set for the near future. The chances of a new service emerging that can take a substantial chunk of the social media landscape is slim. It was fun while it lasted, but the landgrab is over. Here are the winners in their niche as well as the sites that get consolation prizes.
Facebook has no equal. As it approaches a billion users, its growth is slowing. Still, it continues to amass more new users than any other social network, other than Google+, and some think that the "Facebook killer" at big G may have already peaked.
In 2012, Facebook will likely go public. To do so, it will need to make a big move outside of its normal realm of action. Some speculate that it will buy Bing from Microsoft or at least form a stronger partnership with them to have search powered by Bing on Facebook.
Despite Facebook's size, it's not "too big to fail." Its platform is atrocious, and many who understand such things are baffled as to how the site hasn't had a catastrophic crash already. They've solved their revenue problems to some extent and are showing a nice profit, but will it be enough to sustain shareholders when they do go public?
There are questions surrounding the company, but they're still in a position of strength through domination of our collective time. As long as millions are posting updates, pictures, and videos daily, it's hard to imagine anything short of a major outage, lawsuit, or hack that could take the company off its perch.
Here are the remaining social networks that will survive (for now):
- Google+ got going too late. Despite the company putting all of its efforts (and employee bonuses) toward success in social media, the mountain they chose to climb is too big. They didn't want to build a niche. They wanted a Facebook killer. Had they started a year earlier, they would have had a chance. Now, they're just going to have to settle for second best.
- LinkedIn has a stronghold in business that will thrive for the foreseeable future. Facebook hasn't really tried to challenge them in this arena. If they do, LinkedIn will be able to hold them off because of reputation and the fact that they've reached a tipping point in business social networking.
- Tagged.com is the less-talked-about-but-highly-profitable social network that took on a niche Facebook didn't want: social discovery. If Facebook is where you find your friends and family, Tagged is where you meet new people and make new friendships. They've been around as long as Facebook and have over 100 million users; it's enough to keep them alive and well on the Facebook fringe.
The term "microblogging" is outdated already, but Twitter still stays at the top. There are contenders, but even they have to rely on Twitter to be relevant.
Twitter ended up winning the battle against the earlier contenders such as Pownce and Jaiku because of celebrity adoption. Digg and Pownce founder Kevin Rose even went so far as to say that he liked Twitter better than his own creation. They sold Pownce a couple of months later and it has laid dormant ever since.
The key to Twitter's success has been adoption, but they are still vulnerable. Their revenue model is weak at best and despite a strong focus over the last year to find the right ways to be profitable, they have barely scratched the surface.
They may just end up being a fad, and there's only one pseudo-competitor that could emerge in 2012 to beat them.
- Tumblr, for all its shortcomings, remains the fastest-growing microblogging/blogging/photosharing hybrid out there. Everyone in its way, including Posterous, has pivoted out of the way. If they can put together a revenue model better than Twitter, they would have a chance to emerge more into the mainstream. Right now, despite tremendous traffic, they are but a hipster's dream.
This time last year, Digg was still in the news as the largest provider of user-voted content. Their disastrous move to V4 in August sent many users to their main competitor, and the land of Reddit hasn't been the same ever since.
The "front page of the Internet" has seen an explosion in traffic that most analytics and tracking services cannot even fathom. Last month, an image of a chat between a Reddit user and an Amazon CSR received over 800,000 views, most of which came in the first 48 hours.
This is not a one-off example--every day there are posts that receive hundreds of thousands of views. The "Digg Effect" of old has been replaced and eclipsed by the "Reddit Effect," causing many in the community to rely on sites like Imgur for their ability to stay up despite traffic spikes (as well as for the minimal ads placed on the site).
The site seems to do so many things right for its community. You don't hear the same complaints as you do on the other power social sites like Facebook and Twitter. Much of this can be attributed to their announcement of independence from Conde Nast in September. While they're trying to build a business, they're trying to not do it at the expense of the community.
There are still two sites that will survive in this field, even though it's the one social media arena that is narrowing:
- Digg is not dead. Not yet. They still have a strong business plan with inline ads and CEO Matt Williams said they're on the road to profitability by early 2012. If they could build up buzz the way that Kevin Rose once did, they still have a place in social news.
- StumbleUpon is the red-headed stepchild of social news, exactly as it wants to be. The traffic potential is actually higher with StumbleUpon than Reddit, with some pieces of content breaking 1 million views, but there is very little community engagement, and the quality factor is still hit or miss. Still, the mystery surrounding what pushing the Stumble button will bring next should keep them nicely growing in 2012.
What about Foursquare? Groupon? Chime.in?
The niches that these and other sites reside in are still wide open. The three major social media disciplines (networking, news, and microblogging) are set. There need be no new entrants into those arenas.
In the niche social media world, there is still hope for innovation and creativity. Those wanting to stake their claim need to look here. Rather than building a Facebook killer or looking for the next big thing, they need to find a niche that needs servicing and master it.
The big landgrab is over, but there are still plenty of smaller stakes that need to be claimed.
[image: flickr user sergemelki]