Peer Networking: What’s Next?

First it was Friendster. Then it was MySpace. Next it was Facebook. Now it’s Twitter. As online peer networking systems have matured, millions across the globe have migrated from one to another. Some opt to close accounts as they make the jump. Others leave their abandoned accounts open, checking them rarely, if ever, and effectively turning some peer networking sites into online ghost towns.

But newly emergent applications aim to bring peer networking services together. Users can now display their Twitter feeds on their Facebook pages, while sites such as FriendFeed are aiming to take this aggregation of content even further, allowing users to manage all their peer networking experiences through one portal. The question is: Will this merging of peer networks eventually make them indistinguishable from each other?

According to Chris Kenworthy, the answer is an unequivocal “maybe.” Kenworthy has been running online communities for a decade. He has one of his own and is active in others through his employer, Escalade Media, which runs 15 to 20 peer networking sites.

Kenworthy thinks people will continue to seek out certain peer-based online destinations for specialized content but that aggregation of sites such as Facebook and MySpace is the wave of the future.

“We find that people are seeking out that niche information and they’re doing that more so than ever on forums,” Kenworthy said. “But we’re also definitely seeing a tie-back to those hubs — MySpace, Facebook and Twitter — within our own online communities. I think that trend will continue.”

Many peer networking sites elect to do as Escalade does: establish a presence on more popular sites such as Facebook and hope it leads users back, like a trail of digital breadcrumbs. But the logical next step of this progression is full integration of the experience. Kenworthy sees this as being the core trend in online experiences for the next couple years, going so far as to term it “Web 3.0.”

The emergence of FriendFeed to some extent signified the beginning of this migration.

“FriendFeed was the first site to really start to aggregate all the social networks and bring them into one place. I see more FriendFeed-esque applications cropping up if FriendFeed can’t get a good market share going again,” Kenworthy said. “They lost some of it with the design and feature stagnation that they had in recent months.”

What’s driving this merging of peer networks? According to Kenworthy, it’s the sheer volume of content being generated by users themselves that drives them to seek ways to more selectively manage the experience.

“There’s just so much noise that’s out there, especially with Twitter,” he said. “People just can’t take it, and so eventually they’re going to have to gravitate toward a tool or an application that’s going to bring all of their favorite places together in one spot where they can just glance and see what’s interesting and what’s going on.”

Kenworthy attributed MySpace’s loss in market share to this “noise.”

“What did MySpace in is, I think they gave users too much control,” he said. “There was so much noise and so much information, and it almost became unnavigable, with people applying CSS hacks to their pages. It’s interesting because Twitter has the same sort of that background ability, where you can upload a custom background, but you can’t really manipulate the layout or height lengths or change the way that the sight functions, move stuff around. If they ever head down that path, they’re going to end up like MySpace, so they’re probably being very careful with that.”

This concept of “noise” is part of Facebook’s edge over the competition. The site makes it simple to manage the amount of content you see from other users. It also allows for custom privacy settings, with users able to define certain subsets of people who can view certain information.

“They jumped on that privacy bandwagon pretty quick, making it so that if you had an employer who wanted to be your friend you didn’t have to share your binge-drinking photos,” Kenworthy said. “MySpace hasn’t done that yet. Where they have, it’s very limited.”

Facebook also enjoys an edge in terms of advertising. After starting as a somewhat grassroots service that emphasized the user experience, MySpace soon shifted over to featuring blaring ads that appear instantly at log-on and are omnipresent throughout. Facebook, meanwhile, “is an incredible platform on the advertising side; they’ve done a great job with that,” Kenworthy said. “It’s just so highly targeted.”

On Facebook, ads based on information harvested from profiles are subtly integrated into the user experience so quietly it barely registers as advertising.

Whatever service takes hold as the premier means to integrate peer networks into one portal, it will need to take such successes and failures into account. Regardless, Kenworthy feels this integration is coming — and soon.

“Close to the end of 2009 [or] early 2010, there’ll be a new service that will emerge as a leader in that aggregation realm, and it’ll really take off,” he said. “I’m sure that there’s an incubator someplace working on this and we haven’t even heard about it yet. But it’s not too far off; I would imagine it’s just a matter of months before we see something.”

– Daniel Margolis, dmargolis@certmag.com

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