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The future of Social Network Services (SNS) can be discovered on High School and College campuses. I believe that topic-specific “vertical” SNS’s are very important, but I also think that the model needs to be University-like – a modularized SNS. There needs to be a campus “brand” (or University) within which the topic-specific “clubs,” “houses,” “fraternities,” “dorms,” and “interest groups” can interact – somewhere where crossovers, cross-fertilization, and aggregation are encouraged – no, needs – to happen. I hate SNS sites like cardomain.com – a site devoted to your favorite cars – because I am not JUST a car guy.

I am a car guy for sure but I am also interested in motorcycling, rowing, training, running, in biking, in Thomas Pynchon, and in talk radio – CarDoimain might be successful in the short term, but in the long-term, the real power would come from creating a open, creative, resource-rich platform/campus/university/high school and maybe create a school of engineering, a liberal arts school, a law school, a dining hall, and so forth, but then allow the SNS to find itself.

Facebook, Google+, reddit, and even Twitter does a beautiful job of doing this, incidentally, allowing both the big tent generalist socialization and connection while also really being able to break into departments, clubs, and little hidy-holes where you can enjoy an ad hoc get together with friends and co-conspirators.

To allow the SNS and its members to find their own voice, their own interests, and their own passions – which may well be very different from what is first assumed by the creator. Google gets this, though not yet within the construct of the SNS’s. What Google did do successfully was to buy USENET – the original newsgroups – and then build an superstructure on top of that – make it modern, sustainable, durable, and more readable.

Google returned USENET to relevance in a world that considered newsgroups and IRC to be dead or dying. Each and every one of communities on USENET is amazingly vertical, but they could all back up and back out to the larger USENET community – to the equivalent of the “welcome new students” meetings and gatherings colleges offer to entering Freshmen.

Communities that are too vertical tend to shoe horn the “general topics” conversations into hidden “off topic” eddies. That is just the opposite of what should be done. The conversation should be general, cross-pollinating, and then move, after a conversation starts, into another room.

Start with an amazing platform, collect users, listen and watch them to see how they’re playing with the software application objects, widgets, and tools (are they playing with the toy or the box?), and then build for the users base, withholding judgment. reddit is a case study for this: start small, grow organically, and allow your members to find themselves.

The developers of reddit realized that after initial vertical growth based on the general members of Digg, kuro5hin, and Slashdot (techie, geeky, teens, boys), reddit would suffer from the same sort of vulnerabilities that Digg suffered when it didn’t evolve and grow and broaden itself past “News for nerds. Stuff that matters.”

People love talking about Linux, but when happens when the Dow drops or the elections come? Where will the conversation happen? Where is the “kitchen” at the party where every eventually goes to just talk about general interest stuff? Unless there are opportunities to express and share so-called “off-topic” conversation right there, within the community in which members are already committed, with members to whom they’re already committed, then they are bound to go elsewhere.

Starting small and allowing the community to design itself is much different than starting big and losing one’s focus. Other mistakes happen when community builders make assumptions as to what participants, members, and lurkers want. Another mistake is putting a wall up around the community so that non-members cannot get a full feeling for the community from without.

The best SNS’s, virtual worlds, and online communities are honeypots. By honeypot, I am not suggesting, “a server that is configured to detect an intruder by mirroring a real production system. It appears as an ordinary server doing work, but all the data and transactions are phony. Located either in or outside the firewall, the honeypot is used to learn about an intruder’s techniques as well as determine vulnerabilities in the real system.” Although I am, sort of. The best SNS needs to be appealing, attractive, sweet, and compelling. Community-builders and SNS ASP developers need to be willing learn about member techniques, interests, processes, and needs, as well as determine “vulnerabilities” in the SNS platform that may repel, turn off, or limit the evolution and growth of the community.

To channel Chauncey Gardener for a second, one must do whatever one must to make sure that the earth in the garden is moist and well fed, one must seed well and completely, one must keep the garden in sun and water, one must encourage the garden to grow as it will for only in its growth will the garden be successful, and then, after rigorous growth, pruning and weeding must be done, only in order to allow the garden to be healthy, not to turn the garden into topiary. Okay, I am done.

reddit allows all of these things. reddit is perfectly useful and compelling even as an alien, but it is way more fun and interesting when you’re a citizen, that’s for sure. An SNS community needs to be as attractive as possible because exclusivity is no longer essential or even valuable. What is valuable is “useful,” “interesting,” and “authentic.” They also have to have community buy-in and the best enjoy a certain fanatical devotion. Just like the best Universities and Colleges.

And reddit allowed its member to tell it when it was time to evolve past tech and geek news. reddit did not limit its scope or define itself too tightly with being “gear for geeks” or “news for nerds.” That would have ultimately been the death of reddit.

What the best Universities (such as Yale) understand is that it is not the student who is blessed and honored by being accepted by a top college (Yale College) but rather it is the college that should be blessed and honored (and should be grateful) that such a quality student is accepting its offers and actually attending – choosing – their particular school: Yale instead of Princeton, Brown, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Dartmouth, Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley, etc…

Harvard, too, is aware that although in the short-term Harvard makes the Harvard Man, over the long term, it is Harvard Men who made Harvard and continue to make Harvard. “Who have you graduated recently?” Unless the quality and character of its students and alumni remain top-drawer, Harvard is not guaranteed its position as “top three” in USA Today alongside Princeton and Yale. No matter how grand its endowment.

So, Harvard and Yale spoil their students rotten! My friends who attended Harvard or Yale college swoon over those 4 years like I swoon over my first love.

Likewise, SNS’s, virtual worlds, and virtual communities need to realize that at any one point, their brand is only as good as the collective that is manifest in the users, the members, the lurkers, the stewards, and the alumni of the property.

This isn’t only true in SNS’s. The same thing can be said of the most successful message boards and online communities. The most important distinction, I think, is that all of these “rooms” and all of these “clubs” and all of these spaces where (and are) defined and created by the communities themselves. Sui generis. And this sort of ownership – “for us by us,” as the slogan goes over as Howard Rheingold’s Brainstorms community – should never be underestimated.

The Well has Howard Rheingold as a member and alumnus, for example, and the credibility of all that he has made and done; over time, more and more virtual communities, virtual worlds, and SNS will be known for their members as well: who studies, who studied, and who wants to join.

“What’s in it for me” (WIIFM) and the concept of pride of ownership are important – essential – ingredients of a sustainable, deep, thriving, and healthy community. The success Facebook is that the verticals are not (were not) defined for them by their grand architects – they are self-creating, self-forming, and also self-destructing. They form, reform, mutate and disperse after they hit a limit of general conversation and then either break off and reform into an “interest group” or “club” or they self-check and work to “get back on topic.”

SNS’s and communities in general tend to be formed in one of two ways: like Paris or like London. Intelligence Design (architecture) or Emergent Design. The later never looks very beautiful or the way people – or the creators, investors, and architects – expect (or want) it to look, because investors and designers tend to not be able to control it – and when they do try to impost order, often in a heavy-handed way, they also tend to scare off all of their members, too.

This organic revolution has proven its success online time and time again. The Internet does not respond (well or at all) to command and control. The smartest Web 2.0 platforms allow the “masses of asses” (yes, the customer; yes, us) to define the platform and the experience – their own and collective environment and experience.

Facebook does this amazingly well. Friendster and MySpace suffered from a vision and used command and control tactics to try to coerce its users that “it didn’t really want to do things that way” and Friendster members abandoned in droves to platforms and experiences not so monitored by “mom and dad.”

A command and control grand vision doesn’t work when you develop an environment that needs to be truly both attractive and compelling much more than it needs to be informational or instructional. An SNS needs to be attractive, diversional, compelling, amusing, and entertaining – never limiting.

My analogy of college and high school never mentioned classrooms or classes for training or learning. People do enough of that at school and at work. An SNS needs to give its users a university campus without any expectations or concepts of dropping out, getting judged, doing homework, or being held accountable for anything.

A good SNS should be all late-night wine-influenced discussions of Descartes and Plato and the summer afternoons on the quad and the time playing Xbox with your roommates.

When I go onto my long-term online communities, the Well, The Meta Network, USENET, and Brainstorms, there are many very deep and very vertical communities, discussing things as frivolous as fashion and video games and as deep as how to survive cancer, how to get a post doc grant, and very deep discussions on “spirit,” “chaos theory,” and “world politics.”

What makes this amazing and sustainable is that there are an infinite number of ways to get along, to move into a space of intense conversation, and then to pull back into common areas, just to see who’s around. In a university setting, this could be the dining hall, the quad, the commons, etc. These spaces are very important.

If you think about all of this in terms of evolution, then we can think about the way things evolve in the most perverse ways when isolated from others of its kinds. So, if there are impervious walls – gaps or voids, mountains or ridges – between these vertical markets, SNS’s, and communities, then there may be an initial success, but there can also be a terrible volatility. One plague or drought can decimate a population completely.

Having a commons allows members and visitors to have a place to meet new people, have new experiences, and learn of new clubs, new opportunities, and new places – inbreeding versus crossbreeding. Ultimately, a diversity of visitors helps build a more resilient, invested, and self-identifying community. They will become “students for life” at best and proud alums at worst. They will carry the brand awareness, even if their lives become too busy to participate any more.

They will become life long brand ambassadors for your community. Proud alumni.

And, in terms of “viral marketing,” it is also important when it comes to a member of an SNS “inviting his friends” – not all of my friends have the same vertical interests that I do… They could have very different interests – but as I explore the “commons” of an SNS, I can note that there are things happening online that “friend x” and “friend y” would love, and that would be my incentive to invite them on board.

I am the only person I know in my entire community – that is not true, my buddy has an Audi S4 – who is into cars. My buddy is an Audi driver and I am a BMW driver. Does that mean we’re both drivers? Does that mean we love cars or our particular car? Do we cross over on performance sedans? On German cars? On luxury cars?

You have to offer the tools to allow the market to choose for itself, otherwise, you might never find out that the SNS needs all three, or none at all.

A “Modularized SNS” should be neutral like a university (unlike MySpace, which is pretty pre-defined as to what the demographic is), and there are lots of “vertical niche SNS’s” (e.g. car enthusiasts, gourmet cooking, travel, Rolex fans, Republican politicos, etc.) That way, everyone can form a SNS experience that actually fits them by modularly assembling the groups of people who have similar interests, (not just friends-in-common!)

Got it? Go git ‘em, Tiger!

Feel free to email me at [email protected] or call me at +1 202-351-1235

Learn more about Chris Abraham at Gerris digital.

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Chris Abraham

About Chris Abraham

A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.

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