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Reader Question: Are there new opportunities in social networking?

Q: Andrew, Been reading your blogs ever since Scoble made the introductions :) My question: do you think, its possible for a generic social network to launch and make it big today? If yes, How?
Posted by Ravi

A: First, let’s talk definitions
I get variations of this question a lot, both online and offline. And everytime I’m asked, I tend to ask several followup questions, like:

  • What do you mean by “social network”?
  • What do you mean by “make it big?”

Let’s talk about the first issue, the meaning of a social network. One could define this as any site that has a standard set of pages like a profile page, a friend list, a newsfeed, a wall, and all the other mechanics. Another definition might be to do it more narrowly, like a set of mechanics and also the primary use case of communication. Yet another would be to define it as a site supportin the OpenSocial API.

It’s obvious, but the more narrowly you define the term, the harder it will be for a specific site to replicate its success. If you completely cloned Facebook today and released it to the wild, it would have a vastly different outcome than doing it 5 years ago.

Similarly, the concept of “making it big” is nebulous as well. For many entrepreneurs, making a company that throws off $5 million a year that supports a great lifestyle is an incredible outcome. Many indie Facebook developers and associated “lifestyle entrepreneurs” are primarily driven by that. For other entrepreneurs, they aspire for a billion dollar outcome.

My take on credible social network businesses
With all that said, I do think there are many opportunities for people to build sites with social networking backbones, and attract 10s of millions of users.

The reason is that there are simply too many people in the world interested in mega-niche topics, like:

  • Fashion
  • Knitting
  • Board games
  • NASCAR
  • Kittens
  • Photography
  • Comic books
  • Import cars
  • etc.

And the same way that there are specific ecosystems of clubs, stores, student organizations, magazines, etc. that specifically cater to these niches, there will be websites that cater to these and will find some way of reaching millions of users.

I think where you run into problems as a business is when you are focused on a site that:

  • Is contextless and primarily is used for communication
  • Is reflective of your actual friend group (not new people)
  • Is people-centric rather than centered on media, games, etc

Taking all of this out makes it so that your site not only supports the same use cases as Facebook and MySpace, but also has the same “feel.”

There are many permutions of this that can work well as a social network – it’s worth exploring more. 

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