MySpace came and has in most respects, moved into obscurity. Facebook, Twitter, Google+ have all entered the field, with Facebook claiming nearing 900 Million users, Twitter is estimated to be around the 300 Million users, and Google+ is debated to be anywhere between 60 Million and 200 Million.
The figures themselves don’t convey much meaningful information unless of course your only metric is quantity of users. In the end, all of these platforms are driven by advertising, so surely the metric of Active users is more meaningful. Even active users could be split by time spent using their social media platform of choice daily. For example perhaps Facebook has 50M users that spend 1 or more hours on Facebook every day - purely speculative numbers: those figures do exist but aren’t publicised for obvious competitive reasons.
With Facebooks IPO sky-rocketting and then plummeting shortly thereafter, and as the previously Venture-Capitalise funded Twitter runs out of cash and moves towards a sustainable business model that incorporates advertising, the question that comes to mind for me is what truly defines success of a social media platform? Let’s start with the simplest motivator: money.
For Facebook and Twitter to earn money it’s about drawing more people into the platform by offering integrated news, special interest groups, calendars, email, messaging; anything to keep people on their site - that drives the advertising they need to survive. Getting more users is a good thing, but only if they are active users spending wholesale time on their site.
Google is in a different place. With years of GMail and Google Apps behind them they already had a user base to tap into with Google+. Anecdotally Google+ is somewhat of a ghost town however Google doesn’t require much income from Google+ as they earn their money primarily through search and integrating Google+ with their existing ecosystem and newer additions like Google Drive, achieve wins on multiple fronts for them in terms of peoples attention.
Finally an even newer kid arrives on the block: App.net. Their goal: to be 100% funded from users alone. The price of entry: $50/year for which you get access to (currently) a primitive private Twitter system. With no advertising to speak of and no VC money to run on for any period of time, their sole aim is to make their users happy. It sounds like an honourable goal but in a world where individuals are happy to pay for material objects they can see, feel and touch, but software services and the internet have ‘always been free’ makes such a concept hard to swallow for many people.
Thinking about their pressures a bit more the idea has a great deal of merit - no pressure to ‘keep eyeballs’ on their site; no existing infrastructure means no legacies to hold them back. The flipside is that user pressure will be extreme. Unlike on ‘free’ platforms where if users don’t like something the platform company will say, ‘Well, it’s not like you’re paying for this…so stiff…’ and in the case of App.net such an answer fails as the sixth word. This will inevitably create much higher end-user expectations and will make balancing specific user group requests very difficult indeed. If you don’t satisfy your customers then it’s all over.
Beyond the money, which is the rather obvious prime motivator for all businesses, what defines true success of a social media platform? Facebook is used by many people as a place to post/read what other personal friends/acquaintances are up to, whereas Twitter is more about seeing what other people you don’t personally know are up to. Some people use both platforms as methods of keeping up to date with current happenings and news/events and others as a basic communications medium for messaging.
However it is used the answer to success is: when I need to contact person X, or when I want to know what person Y is doing, I will check platform Z. To win this game, it inevitably comes down to numbers. Without a significant number of the people you are interested in keeping tabs on, or who are interested in keeping tabs on you, actively using a platform, that social media platform will not succeed. If there are 200 people I want to follow on Twitter, and only 10 on App.net - the choice is Twitter without much thought.
Reaching a critical mass of active users is key. Keeping that critical mass is just as important. Both Twitter and Facebook appear to have reached and passed their own niche critical masses. Google+ arguably hasn’t, and App.net quite possibly never will. For it to succeed enough people must exclusively use it over both Twitter and Facebook and Google+ to make signing up for membership worthwhile. With the draw of their current user-bases so strong this will take a long time and if Twitter/Facebook/Google+ don’t faulter then perhaps they will never get the chance.
So long as Twitter/Facebook don’t become too annoying and erode their critical masses, App.net will not stand much of a chance of succeeding. Any price of entry of greater than $0/year is too high for most people that simply don’t care about the advertising, the on-selling of private information, or the inserting of sponsored messages into their timelines. Geeks of the world rejoice: you may now pay to join your own exclusive Twitter club. Unless one of the three lead horses in this race faulters, you will be talking amongst yourselves, happily I’m sure, for a long, long time.