September 11, 2011 4:59 pm

Share and share alike: social media vie for attention

The success of Facebook has already guaranteed Mark Zuckerberg his place in the history books.

But the founder of the hugely successful social network has also made a play for another kind of technology-related immortality with his formulation of “Zuckerberg’s Law”, which states that the volume of photos, status updates and other online material each individual posts on Facebook will double every year.

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IN Future of Communications 2011

Zuckerberg’s Law follows in the tradition of Moore’s Law, which accurately predicted that the capacity of computer components such as microprocessors would double every two years, without costing more.

But while Facebook’s overall rate of growth remains enviably fast, studies by independent analysts are more worrying for the company. Recent figures from Gartner, the technology consulting company, and GlobalWebIndex, a continuous study of the habits of 100,000 internet users around the world, both found early signs of Facebook fatigue.

GlobalWebIndex’s research suggested that established markets such as the US and UK saw “large declines” in “active participation”, such as sharing photos and sending messages. “Time has wearied users of Facebook,” it concluded. “This trend is even more pronounced among US college-educated twentysomethings, the original users of the platform.”

Nearly a quarter of the respondents to the Gartner survey also said they used their “favourite” social media website (Facebook being by some way the most popular) less than when they first signed up.

“Social media fatigue among early adopters, and the fact that 31 per cent of ‘aspirers’ – younger, more mobile, brand-conscious consumers – indicated they were getting bored with their social network is a situation that providers should monitor. They will need to innovate and diversify to keep consumer attention,” said Brian Blau, research director at Gartner.

So far, such studies have not put a substantial dent in Facebook’s rate of global expansion.

“I have not seen anything that says Facebook is going to lose its grip. They have already held on longer than any of their social networking competitors before them,” says Nate Elliot, principal analyst at Forrester Research, the IT analysis provider.

Outside China – where it remains blocked – Facebook is by far the biggest social network by the number of users. However, it faces a new competitor in the form of Google Plus, the search company’s social network that has already attracted about 30m users in its first months.

In addition, myriad smaller websites are vying for users’ attention. New social networks pop up every week, offering subtle new spins on photo sharing, dating, blogging, games and status updates. “When you look at the ones that are doing well, it comes down to some combination of three things: convenience, status and self-expression,” says Mr Elliot.

Of those aspects, the last may be the most important for the young, early-adopter users that are showing the greatest signs of Facebook fatigue.

“Facebook is a little bit bland,” he says. “We used to say how great it was that it was cleaner than what came before. But the self-expression piece from MySpace is sorely missing from Facebook.” Where Facebook tends to be simple and clear, MySpace was cluttered but highly personalised.

The good news is that even if these companies are competing with Facebook’s established features, many still rely on its Connect identity platform to make it easier for users to sign up.

Hot trends among “micro” social networks include:

Photography

Facebook may be most popular iPhone app to date, but that has not stopped a legion of photography apps from taking advantage of smartphones’ improving cameras and constant connectivity.

Although Flickr, the photo-sharing site now owned by Yahoo, has its own mobile app, it has been overtaken by services built specifically for mobile phones – some of which are barely even available on the regular web.

Of these, Instagram (pictured) has been the breakout hit. Less than a year after its launch, the iPhone app has been downloaded by more than 8m people. One recent new member is Justin Bieber, the teen pop sensation whose arrival on Twitter drew millions of fans to the platform.

Instagram’s most obvious differentiator over other photo-sharing sites is the ability to add “filters” to a photograph, to amplify the colour, put it into stylish black and white or make it look as though it was taken with a vintage film camera.

Users can choose to follow their friends’ pictures, which are then displayed in a stream of updates, only viewable through the mobile app, ensuring that users keep returning to the same place where they share photos.

The filters are a fun feature – and one that Facebook itself is rumoured to be incorporating into its own app after reportedly trying (and failing) to buy Instagram over the summer.

But the most useful aspect of Instagram is its ability to share simultaneously to several different social networks at once, such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or even Flickr itself. The app succeeds because it does not try to replace people’s existing networks, but makes it easier to take photos to share.

Another intriguing niche-within-a-niche is food photography. Several apps capitalise on the trend among foodies to snap their meals at home and in restaurants. Foodspotting, one such app, has seen downloads leap from 300,000 to 1m in less than a year, while Nosh, a similar service, was launched in July by Craig Walker, the US entrepreneur who sold Grand Central, the last start-up he co-founded, to Google.

These services aim to help urbanites decide what to eat and where, although it remains to be seen whether most people will consider it good manners to use a phone at dinner.

Check-ins

In 2009, Foursquare (pictured) was tipped as “the next Twitter”. While it has not quite reached the same heights as the microblogging community, it has established a new pattern of digital behaviour: the “check-in”.

Another smartphone-centric social network, Foursquare lets users check in at any location, from bars and restaurants to airports and offices, thus informing their friends of their whereabouts.

At first, Foursquare nudged people to check in by offering small digital rewards, such as making the person who most often visits a place its “mayor”. Usually, this conferred little more than bragging rights, although a growing number of establishments offer perks, such as free food and drink, to their designated mayor.

More recently, it has played down “mayorships” and other game-like elements to put more emphasis on recommendations of nearby hot spots. It is encouraging users to leave tips for their friends at certain places, which pop up on these friends’ screens when they are nearby. While services such as Yelp and Qype rely on the wisdom of the crowd to rate restaurants and bars, Foursquare lets you see your closest buddies’ favourite spots.

In July, Foursquare topped 10m users and raised a large new funding round, in spite of its limited income.

Now, its check-in concept is spreading beyond location. GetGlue, another mobile app, has more than 1m people checking into television shows, movies, sports games or even topics of discussion. IntoNow and Shazam use audio-recognition technology to check people into TV programme, while With simply lets users share, well, who they are with and what they are doing. Foursquare itself now has added events such as music concerts to its service.

All these show how social media have come to provide back channels to a bigger and often live event. However, while check-ins are proliferating in some areas, Facebook’s own attempt to mimic Foursquare, called Facebook Places, was quietly shuttered recently. While location remains a feature of Facebook’s mobile apps, users no longer check in but merely add their places to status updates.

Facebook’s decision may suggest that for most people, check-ins are just too time consuming to become a regular activity.

Mobile chat

One of the biggest, but least visible, trends in social media over the past year has been the rise of mobile chat networks.

BlackBerry Messenger pioneered this by providing an instantaneous alternative to its e-mail mainstay. BBM has proved hugely popular with teenagers, in the process taking BlackBerry to a whole new market, but several other mobile apps are now challenging its dominance.

WhatsApp Messenger (pictured) has topped App Store charts in recent months, becoming so popular in the Netherlands that KPN, the Dutch telecoms group, warned earlier this year that it was harming text-message revenues. Meanwhile, Skype, the internet calling service, has acquired Groupme, a service similar to WhatApp.

Prominent technology companies are also getting in on the act, with Apple’s iMessage (to debut soon), Google’s Huddle and the recently launched Facebook Messenger.

A large part of the appeal of these apps is that they are free, using mobile data rather than charging per message as with SMS. Other advantages over text-based communication include their immediacy, their privacy and the ability to talk to a small group of friends simultaneously in “real time”.

Perhaps the privacy aspect is the most significant obstacle facing Zuckerberg’s Law: these chats are not published on the open web for all to see.

As people’s groups of friends grow on social networks, the complexities of human relationships can be put under strain. New controls in Facebook and Google Plus to put friends into groups have tried to tackle this issue.

But while some share more with their ever-growing group of friends, others are put off, unsure whether their parents will want to see the same party photos as their friends.

As more of our personal lives move online, less may become more.

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