The obvious applications of this social stuff are social networks. However, just being able to “connect” with people you know only gives you minimal benefit, like an online address book. There has to be more, and there is. The social networks have added various ways to contact people within your network and other interesting little features. There are other social applications that are not based in a social network. In Why Social Works Part II: The Ego, I reviewed what made applications like FriendFeed and Twitter so popular. In this installment, I look at what is making some other applications so widely accepted. In particular, these applications have generally avoided being lumped in with other social applications but continue to be successful.
Google Reader is an RSS reader. It also happens to be a fantastic one. In general, RSS readers do not sound like a very social application, but Google Reader allows you to share RSS items with people you have emailed or IMed on GTalk. This by itself does not sound that interesting, but “Friends Shares” and the ability to attach notes to the share make it a killer application. Where else can you find out what Robert Scoble and Louis Gray are reading (besides FriendFeed of course)? If you review the shares from enough people, you may not need to even track any other RSS feeds.
In addition to the information addiction that Google Reader can cause, your shares may be read by other people. So, you may be reading the shares from the Scoble’s and Gray’s of the world, but someone may be reading yours in the same manner. These shares are also being picked up by a growing number of applications. Two applications in particular, RSSmeme and ReadBurner, gather these shares and the notes and rank stories daily. Even more applications, like FriendFeed, use these shares and notes as user generated content. The key to the shares is that they can generate some “network effects” without the burden of a heavy social network directly behind them.
StumbleUpon is an interesting beast. Some people try to call it a social bookmarking application, but it does not really fit that mold. StumbleUpon has some of the workings of a social bookmark application, but uses user reviews and “thumbs” to drive content discovery or stumbling. StumbleUpon may not be totally mainstream, but they have had their share of success. Again, the question is why?
First, a user can configure the topics they are interested in like programming, web development, politics, etc. Then, the user can thumb up or down a site that they find on the internet in their normal web surfing. This is enabled by a browser toolbar distributed by StumbleUpon. Because of the simplicity of adding information to StumbleUpon, any user can become a power user, mostly due to the number of web pages reviewed. Of course, there is the concept of friends and contacts in order to enable social features, but this social context is used mostly used to drive the stumbling. You can stumble particular topics and you can stumble your contacts reviewed pages. You can ensure that your network of connections is useful by connecting with people that have similar interests. All of these “small” features add up to a very interesting application that has a passionate following.
SocialMedian has been in the news a lot lately as they were just purchased by XING. I mentioned that it was not surprising that they were purchased because I thought they had a very interesting product and were doing many things very well. SocialMedian is similar to the social news sites like Digg, Mixx, Reddit, etc. It allows users to submit posts from around the web, and other users can comment and “clip” the story. However, SocialMedian goes a little further than the other social news sites. First, any user can create a news network that other users can join. These networks have settings for noise level and various topic and source filters. Granted the filtering is not the easiest to use, but at its’ simplest, you can order the sources within a network according to your desired relevancy. By having news sources automatically imported, users do not have to submit articles all of the time. A user’s blog is also automatically imported, as well as their Google Reader shares. This allows users to view the site for the content quickly, instead of the normal article submission barrier.
You may ask, where is the social in SocialMedian? First, users may follow other users and mark them as newsmakers. This designation seems like just some terminology, but you can create a network based on the newsmakers themselves. This network would display any content that they submit or is automatically collected for them as well as any items they have clipped. Also, the comments within a submission allow a user to include another user or reply to another user using the Twitter style @username. This social style of commenting increases the amount of discussion and involvement within a particular submission. The other social element of SocialMedian is a Facebook application. The Facebook application was launched in early October, and it increased the visibility of SocialMedian immediately. I am not saying that the SocialMedian application is the best one out there, but the Facebook link allows a site to be shown to people that are not normally looking at social media sites. Facebook is a social network, so if you are a SocialMedian user and have the application installed, your Facebook network can see what you liked on SocialMedian. Essentially, this gives SocialMedian the ability to use the network effects of two linked networks. Obviously, this applies to any social site that has Facebook integration and will likely be the target for many new sites in the future.
As you can see from the three examples above, a social application needs to have some distinguishing features in order to gain success. Whether this feature is adding social connections where they were not likely (Google Reader), enabling social discovery (StumbleUpon) or a host of smaller social features (SocialMedian), there does not seem to be a formula for success. We have also seen the success of sites like Twitter and FriendFeed, which are vastly different than the three sites profiled here. In each of the cases mentioned, success was a slow process. It was not a big bang, social network implementation, these were features that were added slowly as the site owners got a better understanding of how the applications were being used. So, if you are planning to launch some new social media site, do not plan on instant success. It will be a long journey that may have some twists and turns along the way.
Why Social Works Series
If you missed the previous installments in this series, please take a look at the links below: