First it was Facebook and Twitter. (Or not even “first,” since those products were actually preceded by Friendster, MySpace, et al.) Now it’s Foursquare, Tumblr, Flickr, Pinterest, Path, and Highlight. Social networks are proliferating, but the addition of each new app/network is diluting the quality of the whole social experience.
In some (but not all) ways, social networking is a natural monopoly. The best customer experience is only possible when a large number of people are using the same service. The more fractured the space becomes, the less likely any of your friends are to be using the specific network you prefer. And this makes the entire social experience less valuable — both for prospective social media users looking to get involved for the first time, as well as for existing users looking to expand their digital influence/footprint.
I just downloaded Path on my Android smartphone the other day and, while I must admit that I haven’t spent much time with it, it’s a little unclear to me why anyone should bother using this over, say, Facebook, which already does the same thing (and more) and has the additional value of being used by nearly everyone I know. There is some merit in using multiple online tools — Facebook, for example, has yet to establish a blogging service capable of wooing customers away from Tumblr, WordPress, Blogspot, and the like — but much of today’s social sphere is simply redundant. Foursquare, or Facebook check-ins, or Google Latitude? They all do basically the same thing to varying degrees of success, but the existence of all three of them means that, at any given moment, relatively few of my friends are using any specific one of them.
Of course, the counterargument is that the presence of this competition is the very driver of innovation in the field. This is undoubtably true, and perhaps more importantly, there is no good way (nor would it be a remotely good idea) to force everyone to use a specific service anyway. But it is starting to feel as if the hyperactivity in social media these days is reducing the quality for everyone. I suppose the best we can hope for is that the presence of all these startups will force the big names like Facebook and Google to incorporate more of the best ideas into their own products. That is hardly an ideal free-market scenario, but it may be the best option we have at the moment.