This story was originally published on May 20, 2011, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
With more than 600 million members and counting, Facebook is the world’s largest social networking community. Lately, however, a lot of people have concluded that this community is too large for their tastes.
That has created an opportunity for a number of startups that are promising users a much more meaningful — or at the very least more private — social networking experience.
These new networks are worth taking a look at, particularly for people who. like me, have avoided joining Facebook because they have no real desire to share intimate details of their personal lives with the world at large.
The people running these new sites say they are filling gaps in the Facebook model by giving users the ability to narrow the field of people they communicate with and the topics they communicate about.
At the core of each of these sites is the ability to pare down your social network to a small circle of people with whom you already have some connection in the real world. These are people who actually might care about what you had for lunch or whether you’re having trouble sleeping.
The prototype for this new wave of social networks is a site called Path, which bills itself as “The Personal Network.” Path was launched last fall by a group headed by Dave Morin, a former senior platform manager at Facebook.
The initial idea, according to Morin, was to provide a site where users could share photos, along with a bit of conversation, with the people who matter most in their lives. To achieve that, Path placed a 50-person limit on user networks. The number was selected based on research that indicated it’s not possible for a human to maintain real relationships with more than 50 people at any given time.
Since Path launched, a number of similar sites have sprouted, offering users the chance to create even smaller, more exclusive networks. For instance, Shizzlr provides refuge for people who want to organize outings online without the awkwardness of having to exclude — or include — certain of their Facebook “friends.”
What Facebook Shoulda Been
Shizzlr groups are limited to 20 people. Once a user invites a few friends into a group, the service can pull a list of upcoming events from sites like Yelp, Google and Facebook. Group members can then log in, review the events, and decide when and where to meet.
To a large extent, these micro social networking sites are what Facebook was initially meant to be. When it was unveiled on the campus of Harvard University, Facebook was supposed to be a platform for connecting like-minded people at one of the most exclusive colleges in the United States. In essence, it was a virtual fraternity or sorority house. To join someone’s network, you had to be invited or accepted in.
That air of exclusivity disappeared once Facebook moved beyond the confines of college campuses and made its way into the real world. Suddenly, the idea of connecting with a select group of people was replaced by a mad race to collect as many “friends” as possible, regardless of whether you really liked, or even knew, them.
Once that madness began, the user numbers mushroomed — and not surprisingly, advertisers and other corporate types began to take notice.
Today, I would argue that Facebook is more of a social commerce platform than it is a social networking site. Virtually any company you can name now has a Facebook page. Most companies use these pages as marketing tools — to pass information to, and in some cases get feedback from, customers about their products and services.
Recently, however, the marketing-only emphasis on Facebook has shifted, as software companies have started developing storefronts that companies can use to process sales within the confines of the Facebook platform.
Leveraging the User Base
Then there are Facebook’s own efforts to raise revenue. It has used its membership numbers to draw in advertisers. It also recently announced a partnership with Microsoft that will result in linking the Bing search engine to the Facebook platform to create a service that will at least attempt to compete with Google in the world of search-based advertising.
It makes sense for Facebook to follow that path. It also makes sense for it to continue to attract as many people as it can to its platform. There’s big money in appealing to the masses. With the global audience Facebook has attracted, it can develop huge revenue streams, and its eventual IPO is likely to one of the most successful in history.
Seeing the Trend
While its primary business is built around compiling mass audiences, Facebook is not completely ignoring the micro networking trend. In March, Facebook acquired Beluga, a startup launched by three former Google executives, which offers a service allowing users to set up small groups for sharing photos and other information primarily through smartphones.
Beluga users establish their own group limits, and currently the average group consists of eight people, reflecting a desire for more controlled, meaningful interaction.
Facebook has not announced any long-term plans for Beluga. It has only said it will let it run on its own for now. That’s makes sense, given everything else Facebook has on its plate at the moment.
It also allows time to see exactly where this micro social networking trend is going — and whether it offers any opportunities for making money.
I’m betting the trend will grow, simply because it makes more sense to connect with smaller groups of people you actually know than to collect large batches of meaningless “friends.”
That doesn’t mean Facebook will die. It will continue to evolve, and probably prove to be a major platform for both communication and various forms of commerce. But the real social networking will likely move to these smaller venues, where people can reallypick and choose their real friends.