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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 March 2008, 10:44 GMT

Evolution of the social network

By Marc Cieslak
Reporter, BBC Click

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The evolution of social networking sites

Recent reports of social networking's demise may be slightly premature.

Sure, some users are completely fed up with receiving friends invites, being "bitten", "poked" and indeed having sheep thrown at them.

And there has been a 5% slowdown in new UK users to the larger social networks, Facebook and MySpace, between December 2007 and January this year.

But Alex Burmaster, an analyst at Nielsen Online which compiled the figures showing the decline, says: "The slow down in social networks is being somewhat exaggerated. It's a natural form of any growth that we see in the online eco-system.

"Something starts from a very small base and grows very quickly. It becomes popular, but then it's only natural at some point that the growth has to stop, because it cannot carry on growing at that rate, because there is only so many people it can grow into."

While the bigger players in the game might be experiencing a slow down in growth, they still command the attention of millions of users.

It's all about consumer to consumer. They are providing information to each other
Alex Burmaster, Nielsen Online
"I think you are going to see a lot of businesses coming up thinking how do we tap this power of social interaction, trusted friends and different advice, to make money," says Travis Katz, managing director, international, at MySpace.

"I think some will figure it out and others won't," he adds.

Social usefulness

This could mean that social networking sites start to evolve, taking on new characteristics, and perform new roles.

After all the power of a social network lies in the sheer number of users accessing that site.

Rather than acting as a glorified friend finder, social networking could provide more practical help. The recent addition of a blood group application to Facebook that tracks down blood donors with specific blood types, ably demonstrates this.

MySpace logo, AP
Social network sites are starting to make more of their audiences
"The idea of social networking on the socially useful sites is all around consumer to consumer content," says Mr Burmaster.

"So rather than a publisher providing information and content, it's all about consumer to consumer. They are providing information to each other.

"With the socially useful site, it's about bringing people's opinions together.

"So a socially useful site is more about what I think about something, rather than who I am as a person," he adds.

User feedback

A new breed of sites which have adopted social networking principles have started to spring up.

At the moment sites like Qype, Brownbook and Trustedplaces act as local and national business directories, and they all work in much the same way.

A couple eating food in a restaurant
Social networking is allowing people to discover new places to eat
"Brownbook works on some very simple principles and that's the principle of Wiki or Wikipedia," says Mark Lyne from Brownbook. "Anybody can add a business review a business and edit a business and it's for free."

"Trustedplaces is a social network focused on local reviews. In other words, it is a city guide that is developed by the people that live in that city", says head of Trustedplaces, Sokratis Papafloratos.

"Qype is a pan-European, local review site which is completely user generated. So people come on and talk about the best places in their area and other people come on and find the best places, using these reviews," says community manager, Rob Hinchcliffe.

But, surely a completely open service which allows anybody to post anything about a business or an event is open to just a little bit of abuse.

What is to stop unscrupulous business owners singing there praises via false posts on these sites?

...people are very savvy, as a group, at sniffing out abuse of this system
Alex Burmaster
"The whole idea of consumer recommendations and social media is potentially open to abuse," says Mr Burmaster.

"The classic example is within a blog, message board, or a group of people. Advertisers come in there pretending to be one of those people trying to promote products - look isn't this album great or this hamburger is fantastic.

"But social media is very well self-regulated and people are very savvy, as a group, at sniffing out abuse of this system."

Critical mass

Abuse or potentially erroneous posts aside, the major factor which will decide the fate of sites like these are the users. The more users who post, the more useful the sites become.

"I think the ones that are going to be most successful are not going to create a standalone community somewhere else because it's hard to do, and people are only going to be members of so many communities.

"Instead they are going to tap into existing communities on the internet," says Mr Katz from MySpace.

The big players have the users and the new sites have the ideas. Convergence between the two could see the dawn of a new age of social networking.

SEE ALSO
Facebook 'sees decline in users'
21 Feb 08 |  Business

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