Are Social Networking Services the “Terminator” of Blogs?

China’s Internet community is ablaze these days with the Social Networking phenomenon. Whereas the Facebook hype seems to finally deflate (at least according my own subjective observations), the Chinese have just discovered the joys of six degrees social graphs and buddy functionality.  Big portal providers and bloghosters like Blogbus are adding SNS features to their blogs, and some bloggers even go so far as to proclaim the end of blogging.

Technology blogger Mai Tian (麦田), for example, argues under the headline “Blogs are already outdated” (博客经过时了 bókè yǐjīng guòshíle) that there are two functions that blogs can fulfill. One is personal publishing, the other is interaction with friends. The personal-publishing blogs profit from strong brands of their hosters, the interactive ones from a big user base. But on both counts, blogs are suffering from serious shortcomings, conceptually and business-wise.

According to Mai Tian, Social Networking Services (SNS) are about to overcome these shortcomings. When he says that Blogs are already outdated, he doesn’t want that to mean that there is no more need to express oneself and one’s ideas in a diary-like fashion, but that in the future this is better done on the profile pages of some SNS with their rich functionality. The traditional function of a blog would become part of SNS applications:

Social Networking is the “Terminator” of blogs. […] It is more effective in terms of personal publishing as well as in terms of interactivity.

I disagree. No doubt, with SNS there are the immediate and obvious benefits of brand and user-base. But they don’t support Mai Tian’s strong claim. Let’s deal with them in turn:

  1. User base.  The answer to this one is simple and complicated at the same time. The simple part: Even with Social Networking Services providing a user base of maybe tens of millions of users, there is always one application with a bigger user base: the Internet itself.

    What we can see here is a re-run of a chapter of very early Internet history, when there were still some proprietary online services like Compuserve or AOL around that tried to compete with the fledgling Net of Nets. Even more than current SNS, these services were the wet dream of business people: transparent demographics, a controlled environment, decent payment methods, everything you can wish for. But they were dinosaurs who had to die, simply because in the long run the real life doesn’t happen inside such closed systems, it happens outside.

    However good the cooperation department of a proprietary online service or SNS might be, they will never capture all the attractions that drag people away from them. Closed systems might look attractive at first sight from a business point-of-view, but the moment you establish them, the users will want to get out.

    So this is the simple part of the argument, drawn simply from a recourse to Net history. Lets get to the complicated part. The most obvious benefit of any SNS system is what network theorists call the user’s social graph. It’s the web of relations and evaluations that embed a person in a network. It’s the buddies and enemies that we have, it’s our preferences and our locational and socio-demographic features. It’s what makes Facebook’s Wall application or Amazon’s recommendation system work.

    Whenever we enclose ourselves in some Social Network we establish a fragmented image of our personal social graph.  Up to now, whenever we leave the Network and go to another one, we have to re-establish it anew.

    That takes time and effort. It’s what business people call a Lock-In. Normally it’s good for them (because it makes them keep us as customers) but not for us, for the consumer.

    Meaning simply, it’s not how it is supposed to be. Our social graph is something that belongs to us. It should be something that we, not some SNS provider, control and operate with. We should be the ones who set the rules, who grant others the right to access our social graph for our or their benefit, or refuse them these rights.

    Of course, this still a technological puzzle to be solved, but initiatives like the Open Identity Project or Google’s Open Social standard are already steps into the right direction.

    So these two factors are one reason why in the long run Social Networking Services will fail. People might follow the immediate attraction of a closed market place like MySpace or Facebook. But after a while they will want to get out. And sooner rather than later there will be the technology that helps them getting out without any losses.

  2. The brand. Of course a properly chosen SNS can provide a strong brand for my self-publishing efforts. But again the argument against closed systems applies. Traditional brands are simply too rigid measured against the possibilities of the Internet and its open culture. The technological and cultural benefit of the new social Internet applications lies exactly in their flexibility. For one publishing project I might affiliate with one brand profile, for a second project with a different one. Even for one project I might want to change brands within the course of time. So if I’m publishing within an SNS system, the benefit of a brand affiliation might be outweighed by the disadvantage of a Lock-In situation.

    The solution to this problem are virtual brands.  Like traditional brands, virtual brands provide the consumer with orientation in a chaotic market. But unlike traditional brands they are not exclusive and contractual. Virtual brands function more like labels or certificates providing a quality control.

    Like the portable social graph, virtual brands are a feature yet to be fully implemented. But the inner dynamics of the Internet market will see to it that this will happen, sooner or later.

All this, of course, is only to say that it is not SNS that are going to be the “terminator” of blogs. But is there any argument that blogs are here to stay? Maybe they are obliterated for completely different reasons?

I think they aren’t. The reason lies in their minimalism and simplicity. Blogs are simply one very basic method of establishing an identity on the Net. They are, in a way,  the atoms or molecules of Net identity. It is up to the Net to provide different ways and technologies to embed these molecules into greater systems or organisms. The more flexible these technologies are, the better.

You might describe this embedding as social networking, with a small “s” and a small “n”. But traditional Social Networking Services as we know them, like LinkedIn, Facebook, Xing, or whatever, are far too inflexible to really respond to our basic need of expressing ourselves and connecting to others, for the benefit of a better life on this planet.

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