Why Grown-ups Don’t Care About Social Networking

social networkingIf some alien traveler landed at an intersection in any decent-sized town in America, wandered into any of the four Starbucks there, borrowed the barista’s laptop to tap into the internet and read the first six blogs he came across, he would instantly conclude that social networking is more important to Americans than work, family, religion, sports and all three Elvises combined.

But like the blind fellow who happens to grab the elephant’s tail, he wouldn’t have the whole picture.

Steve Rubel says the portals – AOL (does it even exist anymore), Yahoo, Google and Windows Live (OK, that one’s a stretch) – will win the social networking wars.  I’m not sure what that means, other than they will give away more stuff for free to more non-paying customers, but I digress.  Steve says, correctly, that every site on the net is adding social networking features.  That’s because 99% of the internet is one giant, reactive momentum play, but I digress again.  Clearly, every site in the world is trying to become Facebook Jr., which from a design and usability perspective is like every NFL team trying to become the Dolphins.  But since the entirety of Web 2.0 is ad-based, all that matters is where the herd is grazing at any given moment.  Steve’s point is that we jump frog-like from one social networking site to the next, but rely on the trusty old portals to manage our online experience.  I tend to agree with that, for a couple of reasons.  One, my personal experience.  I use My Yahoo to get my news, weather and sports and my personal portal to manage my web surfing and research.  Two, logic (a concept rarely featured in the Web 2.0 mania).  Everyone who fires up a web browser has to start somewhere, including the billions who have never heard of Bebo.

I think there is an implied assumption in Steve’s post that people want more data, information and interaction, when I believe most working adults want less.  But between whatever social application is plastered all over Mashable and the old, boring, Web 1.0-associated portals, the portals will always have the superior numbers.  Some say that the teens of today will bring the Facebooks of tomorrow to main street and corporate America.  I don’t think so.  When those teens get kicked out of the nest, get a job or two and a family of their own to worry about, keeping up with what some online “friends” they’ve never met had for dinner is going to lose its place in the sphere of concern.  A lot of younger guys I know used to have MySpace and Facebook pages.  Few use them anymore.  My theory, which I can’t footnote with empirical data, is that they used the social networking sites primarily as a means to meet and advertise themselves to girls.  Once they got jobs, wives and joined the rat race, they no longer had a need for the new-personals service those sites provided.

Now comes Stowe Boyd, who’s selling something, although what it is isn’t exactly clear (“As we catapult headlong into a social revolution…”).  Stowe says that Steve is wrong.  He says because the newspapers and magazines didn’t own Web 1.0, it’s wrong to think the dusty old portal sites will own Web 2+.  Maybe, but old media didn’t own Web 1.0 because they threw it in the dumpster, thinking it was of little value.  Now that all of those ad dollars that used to support so many more magazines and newspapers have migrated to the web, you can be sure old media will follow them like cavemen followed wooley mammoths- and likely with the same result.  If there was any doubt of that before yesterday, the crumbling of the Wall dispelled it.

Sure, the distribution of information changes reasonably fast.  Sure, a lot of the social networking slag tossed up by web sites will be poorly thought out and terribly executed.  But the herd that Stowe is tracking is the loud but smallish herd of technophiles and prospectors.  The ever increasing number of substantially similar social networking sites and the chaotic bloat at the hands of unnecessary features will drive the larger herd – those billions of users who don’t care what song you’re listening to – back to places they know.  Places where the idea is to manage your information, not merely to open your online experience to the unfiltered, irrelevant and often adolescent mosh pit.  Adults, both today’s and tomorrow’s, want less data.  Not more.  The assumption that people want more is the biggest fallacy of the Web 2.0 mania.

Ask yourself how many mid and senior management people in corporate America are actively using Facebook or MySpace as their primary online management tool.  For one thing, those sites are blocked at many companies.  For another, there are better alternatives.  More does not always translate to better.  Sure, there are corporate Facebook users.  But compared to the millions of corporate users who click over to Yahoo every morning to read their news or get stock quotes, the number would surely seem miniscule.  Remove the tech industry, the marketing industry, the recruiters and those with skin in the game from the list, and it becomes even shorter.  LinkedIn has some corporate mindshare, but anyone who’s paying attention can tell that, for better or worse, LinkedIn is very different from MySpace.  I suspect it is also much less sticky, which is why its greater utility plays second fiddle to Facebook’s greater page views.  The fact that LinkedIn can’t decide if it wants to be a roadmap or a destination at least gives it the chance to make the correct decision.

Another factor?  Portals make it easy to aggregate your data and your communications.  No need to install a widget to get the weather if it’s already there on your My Yahoo page.

I think Stowe is spot-on about one thing:

The network — the Web — belongs to us, the indigenous people of the Web: the Edglings.

That’s undoubtedly true.  And while there are other issues for the Edglings – such as the conscription of their creation by others for a profit – there is a segment of the population that will never return to AOL.  Just like there is a segment of the population that thinks using Linux is more efficient than using Windows.  But those folks will always be in the minority numbers wise.  And many of them will capitulate to the inevitability of Windows as they get older and busier.  Much like many of them will capitulate to a portal when they want to stem the flow of information they suddenly discover they don’t really need.

That poor alien sitting in Starbucks, reading those blogs and wondering why all those people sitting around talking on their iPhones aren’t at work may conclude that Facebook is the future.  But it’s not.  It’s just the present.  For a loud but mobile herd.

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