Friendster’s fading. Flickr’s feeling tired. But MySpace is rocking, Facebook’s booming and TagWorld’s launching.
It’s clear that community sites can have a lot of appeal, particularly to the young. MySpace, for instance, logged nearly 12 billion page views last month – that’s more than eBay – according to Business Week. What’s less clear is how long the appeal will last. Will those that flock to community sites when they’re fashionable hang around indefinitely? Or will they stay only until a hipper joint opens up down the (virtual) street?
My guess is that online hot spots, like their real-world counterparts, will go in and out of fashion fairly quickly – and that those betting on their staying power will be disappointed. One reason is simply the fickleness of the young; as soon as a place gets too popular (and the bald-headed guys with backwards baseball caps start showing up), the trendsetters head for the exits, and the crowd soon follows.
But another, more subtle force may also be at work. On the surface, it would seem that the more you invest in a community site – designing a home page, uploading photos, tagging everything that moves – the harder it would be to leave. After all, if you go somewhere else, you’ll have to start all over. But maybe it’s just the opposite. Maybe what’s really fun about these sites is the initial act of exploring them, putting your mark on them, checking out the marks made by others, spreading the word to friends, and so on. Once you’ve done that, maybe you start to get bored and begin looking around for a new diversion – a different place to explore and set up temporary quarters. Community sites may be like games: once they become familiar, they lose their appeal. You want to start fresh.
When it comes to Web 2.0 communities, in other words, familiarity may breed not loyalty but contempt. As we’re seeing with beleaguered Friendster, their trajectories may follow the paths of bottle rockets: up fast, down fast.
If I were Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. bought MySpace a couple of months ago, I wouldn’t just be investing in expanding the MySpace property. I’d be building (or buying) the site that’s going to displace MySpace as the in-place. It’s fine to pitch a business to a capricious clientele; just don’t expect stability.