Update on 7th April 2008. Two contrasting views on free social software;
Free is killing us - blame the VCs & Chris Anderson's Free. Why $0.00 is the future of business (complete 'noise' IMHO).
There’s been a lot of chatter recently about Facebook’s drop in growth marking some kind of turning point in the world of social networks. Opinions vary from ‘people are all networked out’ to it’s a ‘cycle of life’ thing.
In 2006, I read a paper called ‘The Rise and fall of a networked society: A formal model. Very academic, mathematical and difficult to decipher. I meant to write about it then but got busy and filed it under ‘material for blog’. A friend reminded me of the article in a recent email conversation thread on The Influencers are Influenced (more on this later). Then this week, Thomas Power told me that Ecademy had seen a surge in registrations (apparently so has LinkedIn) and he couldn’t understand why.
In the early days of social software (when I worked with Ecademy) the academic literature was mostly theoretical. In the last few years a lot of (anonymous) social software data has been made available to academics. Actually, it’s possible to gather data without the explicit cooperation of the provider. So this paper and others supporting its findings are based on real data.
In this study the scientists seek to understand the statistical properties of social networks so they are able to predict their behaviour. The findings can be summarised thus;
- Networks in a steady state are easily excited by external forces (they call this meta-stable), just like ice molecules can be melted by an external force called heat.
- External events trigger the growth or decay of a network. Sometimes these can be very slight changes in the environment
- Sometimes the timing of this trigger can be predicted (using the science of wave and phase transition theory)
- Dense networks (like Facebook) become increasingly excitable and frequently ‘break up’ into smaller clusters, although dense networks are far more effective for (personal) search
It was recently reported that 37% of Facebook’s traffic is derived from third party applications. So it should come as no surprise that behaviour change is taking place as people discover each other in smaller, more diverse clusters. This helps to explain why other networks are experiencing growth at Facebook’s apparent expense. It’s sheer size and presence has educated individuals, in the same way Youtube has forced TV companies to re-examine their business models.
One final point. Free is easy. Paid for is hard.
The reason there may increased interest in Ecademy from UK media companies is because it actually makes money, and not from advertising. It doesn’t have Orkut, FriendsReunited or Facebook’s scale, but it has achieved something few (if any) social networks have achieved: Creating something of sufficient value that people are actually prepared to pay for. This is different, and it is difficult to achieve beyond most people’s imagination. Let's hope potential suitors don't destroy that value with their frequently oppressive command and control mentality.