In the past few years, we have seen the explosion of “social”. Obviously, lots of people ask why. I feel that a lot of it boils down to simple human nature. People are social beings, regardless of their tendency towards introversion or extroversion. Introverts are social, just on a smaller scale, maybe even just one-on-one interactions. Everyone knows that extroverts are social, because everyone talks to them at some point during a party. On the internet, “social” is a little different. “Social” means the connections you make with friends and acquaintances on various sites on the internet. These sites could be social news like Digg, Mixx, etc. It could also be a social network like Facebook or LinkedIn. There are also lifestreaming and aggregation sites to combine your activity into one location.
Why has there been this explosion of all things social? Because social works. Obviously, this is a little light on detail, but that is also the reason I am writing a series of posts on the success of “social”. There are various reasons why social works, and social works for different reasons on different types of sites. What works for a social news site may not work for a social lifestreaming site.
Social News Sites
At this point, there are four general social news sites, Digg, Mixx, Reddit, and Propeller. I am not including Yahoo Buzz as it is set up a little differently even though it has some of the same features as the others. I am also going to ignore the niche news sites as they can be successful for different reasons, purely related to the niche they serve. So, why do these general social news sites work?
First, what features do they have? All of the sites have a way of voting and commenting on stories that get submitted. This gives users a feeling of contribution to the popularity of the story. In many cases, the discussion in the comments can be vibrant and lengthy. The stories are categorized by topics like Politics, Technology, etc. This allows users to focus only on the topics of interest. Mixx and Reddit have gone further in that respect by allowing users to create their own topics or communities. This provides a level of filtering that helps users avoid too much noise in their favorite topics. This also allows everyone to be their own editor without having any journalism background. Many people do not want to get all of their news from one source, so the various sources that get included in social news sites can provide differing perspectives on a single story.
But why does this work so well? Why not just use MyYahoo or some other personalized homepage? One of the big reasons for success, is the social connections. These are typically called friends, followers or subscribers, depending on the site you participate in. Overall, your connections, and their connections make up your network of users. If your network becomes large enough, you can become fairly popular. Some of these sites provide a way to share submissions with your network directly. By doing this, the user is pushing attention to the submission in the hopes that it will garner many votes and attention. This becomes important due to the way that these submissions are displayed. On each site, there is the concept of the “front page”. The Digg front page has become the holy grail for any story submitted to the site, as it can send tens of thousands of visitors in a short amount of time. This leads these social sites to becoming a game or competition among the users. Many of the sites have a leaderboard, like the Top Diggers or the Mixx daily awards. Users that earn these awards can become even more powerful within the site than they were previously.
For social news sites, the combination of news filtering and the competition provide a powerful incentive for users. Given that larger sites like Digg can provide a large flow of traffic to the linked story, provides incentives for the author of a story to promote the submission of their story to a social news site. This cycle has garnered much attention from bloggers and marketers alike. In some cases, it has spawned a mini-economy where people will even buy and sell votes and story submissions on these sites.
Obviously, the factors going into the success of these sites has been copied widely. However, not all sites or niche topics will have the same success. Some even question how successful Mixx, Reddit and Propeller really are given Digg’s significantly larger traffic. Given that all of these sites have more than 500,000 unique visitors per month (according to compete.com), I think we can call each of them fairly successful.
Stay tuned for Part II in this series where I review the same questions for lifestreaming and microblogging applications.
Why Social Works Series
If you missed the other installments in this series, please take a look at the links below: