What happens when social networking turns out to be an interactive feature and not a single company’s web site? Andreas Kluth has a brilliant essay where he notes social nets are today where the web was back when we needed AOL to get in. Eventually, just as web access and email became commodities, social networks will be a feature of every node on the internet. Your contacts and news will talk with our contacts and news. And Facebook will go away.
We call this going ambient, meaning social nets — like the web, and like electricity before it — will just become part of our environment. You don’t walk into a room today and go, wow, man, this room is electrified! There is no single electrical company or single web company. Same will go for social networks, in which our little personal sphere of communications will plug in to everyone else, without a single company making it happen.
This trend explains the slipperiness of today’s social media race. Friendster plummeted. MySpace got buzz before it got ugly. Facebook was valued at $15 billion before it bungled Beacon. Now, everyone is launching new social nets. Even Penthouse invested $500 million this month in sex-related communities. Kind of reminds you of Earthlink and Prodigy chasing AOL back in the day.
The trouble for advertisers is if social networks are just the new email–a new mode of communication, not a specific web portal–then advertisers are going to have difficulty intercepting our messages. Consider this: No one has succeeded in placing ads next to email, even the contextual attempts by Google. For example, if this blog post was an email to you, dear reader, a computer algorithm from Google might pick up the word “sex” in the above paragraph and insert text ads to the right of this copy block for Viagra. Is that relevant? Do you even care? Or, more important, if your mode of thought at this very moment is communicating with us on a personal level, aren’t you a bit removed from the hunting-shopping mode you enter when you search for products on Google.com?
We think Kluth is right–social networks are here to stay. About 83 million U.S. consumers visited social networks in October, or about half of all people who went online. As networks become unbound, and as we begin whispering with each other in new ways, advertisers may have a hard time bending our ear.