This week Ofcom released figures to suggest that the British use online social networks more than any other European population. Apparently we spend an average 5.3 hours per month logged into sites like Facebook and MySpace. Some are calling it obsessive.
Obsessions are often explosive and a lot of the analysis would suggest that our take up of social networks has been just that. The media story of networking sites is one that begins in a bedroom, builds up some underground cred, catches the eye of a big brand and within a year of launch is bought up for millions of dollars.
But not so. Sites like Facebook and MySpace are just the latest permutations in a long strain of social networks that have been with us since the beginning of the web. In fact, over the years there has been very little change in their essential components.
Take as a case study VirginStudent.com. VirginStudent was a community site launched in 2000 by no less than one of the UK’s – nay the world’s, most important brands – Virgin. It’s a site close to my heart; I did an internship there over a glorious summer in 2001.
We didn’t think of VirginStudent.com as a social network at time but if you visit the archived site you’ll find that it was made up of all the same stuff as the sites that will be eating away at your free time over the coming month.
The site had hundreds of thousands of members. People uploaded profiles and avatars; they aligned themselves with particular ‘real world’ networks and set up groups. They browsed for lapsed and existing friends, and then went looking for new ones. You could set up groups and meet up in forums.
VirginStudent gave you free email, as well as a space to share and store photos and other files. Additional features included a free SMS service, instant messenger functionality, calendars, and news and reviews.
VirginStudent also had an interesting quirk in the form of its on-campus representatives. These deputised (and paid) students promoted the site and its affiliates, which gave the online social network an offline presence. Maybe that sets ViriginStudent apart from the current crop, or maybe the likes of Bebo don’t need to bother with employing marketing people when the punters are doing such a good job.
VirginStudent eventually shut the gates on its community in 2005. Why is not exactly clear; the end was abrupt, coinciding with a serious of technical breakdowns and lapsed promises to increasingly frustrated users. The decision to let the site die off now seems like an incredibly short-sighted move by the otherwise canny Team Branson.
The development of social network sites – our use included – is more complex and gradual than media coverage would suggest, but it’s no less exciting. And looking back at social networks like VirginStudent.com for anyone looking to understand what makes the model work.
One lesson is that the love of users is fickle and cannot be taken for granted. Although their rise has been a gentle affair in relative terms, with all the money and hype that’s been invested in today’s social networks, their demise could be genuinely spectacular. And, most likely, we fanatics wouldn’t even miss them. After all hunting for the next big thing is surely what the social web is all about.