Everyone is talking about the “social web”, due to the rise of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google Plus. But is it actually the “social” factor that drives this enormous success?
Mark Zukerberg claims that people like to do things with their friends online, and he has stood on that claim for a long time. The social web, therefore, is all the social networks and their embedded buttons and controls into other websites that enable people to interact with their friends and acquaintances.
I argue, though, that this has less to do with “social” than it has to do with two other major factors.
There are more and more internet users. 10 years ago it was only geeks that were actively on the internet. Now it’s everybody. That’s why services like pinterest and 9gag are possible now, and were not possible 10 years ago. That’s also the reason social networks from the dawn of the internet were not that successful – they did not and could not have the critical mass. With more users online they have to do something there, and simple-to-use services like facebook are ideal for them.
The social networks that we know today heavily rely on broadcasting. You post one thing and it reaches many people using the same channel. That’s way more powerful than the “doing things with your friends” mantra. I have 350 “friends”, but I don’t communicate with more than 15 of them. Most of them are simply acquaintances, and they don’t differ much from strangers. Especially with Google+ the realization came that all these people are not in fact your friends. They are your audience. The audience of your broadcast. You are broadcasting all sorts of things – thoughts, news, pictures. Instead of sending them personally to people that are interested, you push it out there for everyone to see. This saves a lot of time deciding who to share with, and increases engagement.
So, “social” is in fact “personal broadcasting to a large internet audience” and has nothing to do with friendship. You may argue that it is important to know and trust the person when, for example, you use your friends to get recommendations. In fact the same thing is true if you post on a public forum, with one exception – you are certain that the person is not a bot or a sales person advocating his own product. So here comes an important third factor – online identity. Social networks give users an identity that was not possible before.
I’ve already argued that things like social gaming are not social at all, or at least not anything new, due to very similar factor – scale. Social widgets on the web are simply a means of pushing more content to social networks, not a way of making the web more social.
Ultimately, the “social web” is not in any way more social than the one from 10 years ago, that had basic forums and mailing lists. But it is bigger, allows broadcasting and assigns identities.
That’s why I would prefer to use the term “broadcast web”, as it better defines contemporary social networks.