This time last year I remember that, within the span of about a week, it seemed as though everyone I knew was hooked into the latest gaming/social media fad: Words With Friends. A game played on smart phones that imitates Scrabble, soon everyone had multiple games going at the same time, using the application as a distraction from work, school, or other responsibilities. This year the newest fad game, DrawSomething, in which users have to guess each other’s drawing, seems to have caught on even more quickly. In addition, the picture sharing and social network site Pinterest has been gaining users rapidly in the past months–as of January 2012 it was the fastest site in history to gain 10 million users. But what makes these particular sites or networks take off when hundreds of other, similar ones are launched each year? And, more importantly, how can they stay relevant and keep growing as newer, more novel ideas pop up everywhere?
A successful new network must have a combination of characteristics that is impossible to define, as each one becomes successful for unique reasons. At the moment, it is likely that users already belong to multiple social networks, and actively participate in at least two. Each has their own purpose–in general Facebook is thought of for friends and picture sharing, Twitter for short status updates and news, and LinkedIn for professional networking. To come up with an idea that does something unique, is well marketed and user-friendly is not an easy task, and even the best can fail. Google has now tried twice to start social networks similar to Facebook or Twitter, with the now-defunct GoogleBuzz, and Google+. While Google+ was hotly anticipated, it lacked any features that distinguished it enough from its primary rival, Facebook. The Google Circles were a useful tool, and offered several benefits over Facebook’s privacy and sharing settings, but most people did not want to be actively involved in two separate social networks with such similar purposes.
One way that new networks or sites might attract users is by targeting a certain population. Much has been written in the past months about Pinterest’s popularity with women, particularly in the Midwest and Central U.S., rather than the usual techies who are first attracted to a new site. The nature of the site is one that skews female, as some of its best uses are for wedding or home decorating planning, fashion, and food picture or recipe sharing. Conversely, Slashdot, a technology news website that describes itself as “News for nerds, stuff that matters” is over 75% male.
Of course, with such rapid growth comes some downfalls, as demonstrated by Twitter’s frequent over-capacity or “fail whale” message during its period of rapid expansion. Sites may also find themselves under more scrutiny than they had anticipated at so early a stage in their development–Words with Friends was criticized for its vast similarities to Scrabble (in fact, the major differences in board layout are only to keep it from copyright infringement), and Pinterest has already had to tighten its copyright rules as many of users’ uploaded photos are copyrighted. I cannot predict what will be the next social sensation, but what seems inevitable is that with growth comes not-always-welcome change, and the networks that are most popular today will have to stay on their toes if they want to be around tomorrow.
Top image from Flikr user ohmeaghan, licensed on Creative Commons.
Bottom image from Flikr user Kevin Lawver, licensed on Creative Commons.