Social-networking users are a fickle bunch. Friendster used to be the most popular of the new breed of Web 2.0 destinations, but before long it fell out of vogue and people stopped going there.
In its place, MySpace became the darling of the web. MySpace provided not only a free place to host your own online identity, but a full set of tools for meeting and interacting with others.
Now everybody is talking about Facebook, which fits the same description, but in a very different way. Will Facebook become the next MySpace?
I think so, and here's why.
First, the social networking phenomenon proves that vast numbers of people (and not just the highly tech-savvy) like having their own outpost on the web where they can show what they're all about, communicate with friends, and mix with new people.
To be sure, MySpace is far bigger than Facebook. Almost 25 million people visit MySpace every day - about three times the number who visit Facebook daily - and MySpace racks up about 46 billion page views every month compared to Facebook's 16 million.
But as the people at Friendster learned, things can change quickly in web culture. Social networking sites appear to be unusually transient businesses - a bit like social clubs in the real world. Every couple of years or so a different club becomes incredibly popular, and everyone starts going there, leaving the previous year's hot spot nearly empty. That's human nature, and it dominates the virtual world, too.
MySpace and Facebook differ in some significant ways. In terms of membership numbers, Facebook is quickly catching up to MySpace. According to some analysts, Facebook is adding members at three times the rate of MySpace. It's achieving that rate of growth by becoming something more than a site for college-age socialites - which is exactly what Facebook was until last May, when it opened its doors to anyone with an email address.
Since then membership has shot up by 89 percent to about 27 million users, versus MySpace's 60 million. Much of that growth has come from people in the post-college age group (ages 25 to 34), which burgeoned by 181 percent between May 2006 and May 2007, internet research firm ComScore says.
Facebook: the mature alternative
Facebook isn't quite a mass-market phenomenon yet; most people who are familiar with the site run in college or technology circles. But the buzz around Facebook is loud and well pitched, suggesting that the mainstream audience is just now learning about Facebook and sees it as a more mature alternative to MySpace.
Buzz might be more important to the rise of social networking sites than of other types of websites. People tend to choose their favourite websites in most categories based on how well the services or apps there work; the sites' traffic numbers are less important. But visitors value social networking sites according to how many cool people go there. If you want to meet people online, you naturally visit the site that gives you the best chance of finding people you'll like. View the slideshow of screenshots put together by our sister title PC World that examines major features and shows the differences between the two sites.
The most immediate difference between the two sites involves their look and feel. Facebook is more formal and more related to school and work, whereas MySpace is informal and more about pop culture and leisure-time activities. Facebook's interface is cleaner and more adult-looking than most MySpace pages - Facebook's 'block' presentation, clean lines, and preservation of white space add up to a less chaotic browsing experience than you're likely to have at MySpace.
MySpace gives its users a great deal of creative control over the look of their pages; it's easy to drop HTML code into a MySpace page template to add images, change colours, and move elements around the page. But the results frequently are unappealing: The background images often compete with the text and function boxes in the foreground, producing cluttered, hard-to-look-at results - the online equivalent of loud plaids and uncomplimentary stripes. Some users' pages are so laden with imported HTML code that they crash visitors' browsers.
Unlike MySpace, Facebook helps new members build their networks of friends by leveraging existing, offline social structures: You can run a search of your current or former school, college, university, or company to find people from your present or past. When I created my page, I discovered that a surprising number of former co-workers and ex-classmates were already Facebook members. Once you locate them, you can invite them into your friend network. This approach should enable new members to build their friend networks faster and get more-immediate gratification.
At MySpace you build your network of friends by inviting people from real-world social circles, or by inviting and adding friends of your existing MySpace friends - people in your 'extended network'. One downside of that free-form approach is the preponderance of annoying self-promotion on MySpace. People and groups of all kinds use the site as a marketing platform by sending messages to and requesting 'adds' from members they don't know. MySpace users routinely receive junk messages and friend requests from random rock bands, rappers, comedians, and the like. You don't have to 'add' anybody you don't know, of course, but the upsurge in promotion contributes to the impression that MySpace is less and less "my" space.
Facebook puts more emphasis than MySpace does on applications, which some people will like. You simply plug in a new application at your profile page, try it out quickly and painlessly, and then discard it later if it doesn't seem useful.
Facebook offers a lengthy list of such applications as blogging programs, video players/uploaders, music players/services, and sticky notes. Most of them are written by Facebook developers and users (Facebook says that it wants to be an 'operating system for social networking', and has released application programming interfaces (APIs) to private developers).
For a couple of years, MySpace was the only game in town for social networking. But today Facebook is viable choice. Ultimately MySpace and Facebook may end up serving completely different sets of web users. Or perhaps many people will end up maintaining pages on both sites. But contrary to what some tech analysts say, most people today view the choice as an either/or question: Managing two identities on two social networks can take a lot of time.
Right now, Facebook is stretching to retain its core membership group, 18- to 24-year-olds, as they move on from college life. That's why the site is adding new features - like the applications menu and the ability to search for new friends at companies, not just schools.
As Facebook grows, its appeal among older people - the fastest-growing group of social network members - will increase. As more older users become exposed to Facebook in one way or another, a sizable chunk of the 35 million or so MySpace users in that category might seriously consider moving to Facebook. And if that chunk gets big enough, Facebook will be king.
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