Social networks have been around for about 10 years. Yes, there were communities, forums and chat services before, but that’s not what people have in mind when they speak about social networks.
If you follow the evolution of network sites and the progress that today’s big players like Facebook, Google or Twitter are making, you can clearly see three different phases that the social networking world went through until today.
Let’s have a closer look at those three evolutionary steps of social networks:
Step 1: Walled Gardens
This first evolutionary step lasted pretty long, let’s say from the beginning of the new century until 2006/2007. In this phase many services evolved and started to woo users. It was during this period that many of the social sites appeared that later became huge, like Friendster (started in 2002), MySpace (started in 2003), Netlog (started in 2003), Hi5 (started in 2003) or Bebo (started in 2005). Even Facebook was founded during that first period, though it was open only to students of Harvard University students in the beginning.
The first evolutionary step was characterized by so called “Walled Gardens”, that means destinations which were totally separated from the outside web, with no interaction between the service and external websites. The competing sites aimed at getting as many registered users as possible to reach a critical mass. That was important to leverage “network effects”, which are necessary to reach exponential growth.
Even here in Sweden, a bunch of social networks launched during this first period which actually was initiated earlier than in most other countries. One reason for that was that Internet access became common in Sweden very early. Sites like LunarStorm or Playahead launched under different names already during the late 90s and became huge gathering places for mainly young Swedes around the turn of the millennium. Another big Swedish community, Bilddagboken, started a bit later, in 2004.
Step 2: Platforms
In May 2007 Facebook presented its developer platform. The social network which at that time had about 25 million users encouraged external services to become part of Facebook by launching applications within the platform. This led to something like a “gold rush” since each and every web service wanted to be present on Facebook.
The launch of the Facebook platform can be seen as the beginning of the second evolutionary step of social networks. Now every relevant site wanted to become a platform and to open up to external developers. That doesn’t mean that Walled Gardens had become history. No, they still existed, but at least they made it easier than before for others to leverage the user’s social graph. Thanks to an increasing number of API’s, it was even possible to export some of the content posted within a social network, like status updates which you c0uld access through external tools.
During this phase, every big player tried to open up and to embrace developers. Google launched its own platform initiative called OpenSocial, which aimed at standardizing applications so that a developer could push the same app into several participating social networks.
In 2006, there was a late comer to the social networking party: Twitter. Certainly you can argue if Twitter actually is a social network, and there obviously are some differences between Twitter and the rest of the sites mentioned in this article. But I don’t think the service should be absent from this analysis anyway.
Unlike most other sites which needed at least a few years to evolve into platforms, Twitter made this step almost instantly, in fall 2006. In fact even earlier than Facebook. As of that moment, developers were able to connect to the Twitter API and to create apps using the company’s infrastructure. Unlike Facebook, MySpace and other sites, Twitter’s approach was to provide only basic functionality and to let external apps do the rest – a strategy that seems to change a bit considering the recent acquisition of the popular iPhone app Tweetie and the launch of official apps for BlackBerry and Android.
While Swedish social networks were among the first ever, they struggled in competing with the increasingly popular and advanced international sites, losing their users to cooler, more international services, primarily to Facebook. LunarStorm has lost many of its active users, as well as Playahead that was closed down a few weeks ago. Still remaining on the Swedish market and pretty successful is Bilddagboken, which focuses on photos as its differentiation point. Bilddagboken is owned by the same company as LunarStorm.
Step 3: Embracing the web
The third evolutionary step is one that only a few dominating players were able to make. And it’s progressing at full speed right in front of our eyes. While the second phase was characterized by platforms on top of destinations that tried to appeal to as many external developers as possible, now the social networks want to encourage other websites to become a part of the platform outside of the networks own destination.
Again it was Facebook which initiated the third phase by launching Facebook Connect in late 2008. Facebook Connect made it possible for external sites to add basic Facebook features so that visitors could carry their Facebook social graph and Facebook identity around even when they were not on facebook.com.
Google’s answer was “Google Friend Connect“, which did more or less the same thing, but with the main difference that Google haven’t had the same success with the whole social networking thing. Still, thanks to Gmail and Google Talk, many people have lots of Google contacts, so it nevertheless fulfilled some people’s needs.
Another approach of several social networks with Google involved is XAuth, which also aims at giving users the option to log in to external websites with their identity of participating social networks.
Even Twitter is working on becoming more present around the web with its @anywhere platform. The new feature provides website owners with easier tools to integrate Twitter streams and Twitter functionality into their sites.
The third evolutionary step of social networks would not have been possible if those services wouldn’t have become a mass phenomenon, gathering hundreds of millions of people, making it almost impossible for content sites and other destinations not to connect with this audience. That’s the reason why they are now willing to integrate the social network’s features and to help it gather information about user behaviour and preferences on “foreign territory” – something that especially in the case of Facebook recently has led to a lot of criticism among open web advocates, Internet journalists and bloggers who see the risk that Facebook is pushing the boundaries too far. A conflict between the user’s and the social network’s interest is coming up and right now it’s impossible to anticipate how it will be solved.