Monday, January 22, 2007

DLD social networking panel to mobiles: Sorry, you're not invited

One of the ironies of today's social networking services is that the device that can deliver these services directly to the users wherever they are, and has access to the kind of information that could be Royal Jelly to the providers, is shunned and relegated to a poor relation. Not to my surprise, today's high-profile panel on social networking had little to say on the subject, but contained some interesting tidbits nonetheless. The panel was moderated by Jamba-founder and one of Germany's entrepreneur-wizz kid brothers Oliver Samwer, and consisted of Matt Cohler, Strategy VP at Facebook, Lars Hinnrich, founder of Xing (formerly OpenBC), Erik Wachtmeister, founder of aSmallWorld (aSW), and an old-world-business model legend, Arend Oetker.

Mobile industry: need not apply
The only reference to mobile was made mid-way through by the eminent Dr. Oetker, who seemed to say that 'handys' were obviously not compatible with these kinds of service, because emotion was so important and emotion was clearly impossible on the small screen. Cue my rant from yesterday about not even needing screens, although to be fair Dr O. was the self-styled non-technologist on the panel. The deafening silence on the subject of mobile throughout the rest of the session was a telling indictement of our industry's ability to reach out and enable these services in a more meaningful way than basic WAP links. The lack of a great mobile client for aSW seems particularly problematic for the users (given their openness for real-world interactions), and something like an updated version of the bluetooth-optimized Sensor could make a whole lot of sense for them. Time ran out before I was able to ask the question about 'what is stopping you from having great mobile experiences of your services', but I'm sure the answer would have been the same as when I asked it during the social networking panel in last year's Next Web Conference. The answer then was high and non-transparent charges, which I expect is still gripe #1.

No new business models
There weren't many breakthrough insights re business models (nor were we expecting any). Business models were generally advertising subscription fees or commissions on ecommerce (aSW has 265 yachts on sale, together with thousands of job listings, though no detail was given of the amount of fees charged). Admittedly, Xing noted that they had revenues from day 1, and have recently been floated (valued at $160m). At this stage, Dr. Oetker's baby-food-and-things-you-can-touch business model is looking the healthiest.

aSmallWorld: real world exclusivity brings real value to members
It was interesting to listen to Erik W. in person - he's clearly a bit of a legend for the 100,000 aSWers whose glitzy lives he has helped make glitzier. As a proud member (though not one of the glitzy ones) I can attest to the value of the site - it provided the chance to meet some fascinating and friendly locals during recent trips to Morocco and Miami, providing a much richer experience for the itinerant traveller. That kind of welcome wouldn't have been likely by trying to connect with MySpace members (yikes), and is testimony to its focus on real-world, trusted social relationships. aSW is unique among these services in terms of its rather paternalistic approach - 6 webmasters moderate the community, and can ban misbehaving members (sending them to aBigWorld) for such crimes as trying to 'conect' with cute Swedish women you don't actually know (this is dubbed the 'Italian syndrome'). Erik's presence here seems indicative of a new activities brewing: he announced they may bring in subscription charging soon and will be bringing out a new version of the software to allow groups.

Helping people make the web more manageable, and real.
One interesting idea was Erik's response to the 'next big thing' question. He said there will be lots of opportunities for helping people bring order to the chaotic nature of the web (one of his major USPs for aSW). This theme is echoed in a piece in yesterday's NYT:

Get ready for a lot of opportunities to join all kinds of networks — and, one hopes, some appropriately Webby new way to politely say, “No, thank you.”

This alludes to the Danah-esque annoyance with these clumsy social structures - the inability to bring the same nuance to online social networks that we can use in real life (for example, feigning that you've forgotten your business card / have an important telephone call or are stricken with a tremendously debilating and infectious disease).

Faithful to their customers or their community / market segment?
Esther Dyson asked the best question (as she generally does) to Facebook: Are you going to mature your service offering as your customers grow, e.g. graduate from college and become young professionals. The answer was a bit vague, but this is a fascinating issue. What proportion of sites are designed to facilitate better interaction of predefined communities (e.g. golf club, company networking tools) rather than individuals (with aSW and MySpace being clear examples)? And what attributes should a community-focused network have compared to an individual-focused network?

From real-world communities to online, rather than vice versa
Although not really dicussed in this session, I'd suggest that the natural evolution of things seems to be taking us down the Long Tail - more niche communities created to align with existing real world communities. And I'd doubt whether any of the existing mass networks are the place to start for this. For example, I'd love to have a more powerful online community component to my sailing club, but it's unlikely that any one of these networks will have critical mass in these real world communities to be feasibe (MySpace is not big in Suffolk). The real-world community itself will determine the technology connectedness of its members, and 99% of real world communities have no internet presence. So, presumably there's a viable business opportunity for a multi-platform community-service provider offering community services to these communities. If I was a betting man, I'd suggest that enabling these communities will be the next disruption to the bloated mass market social networks that are already showing signs of churn.

1 comment:

MBonat said...

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