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    Network narcotics

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    Online social networks are rapidly replacing mainstream media networks as the hub of entertainment consumption and discovery. But, with emerging signs of collective Facebook fatigue, Mike Walsh asks the question: has there ever been a social network that we didn’t tire of?
     
    Please, no more friend requests. If you are like most people, in the last few months you have gone from bemusement as invitations deluged your inbox, to addiction as you obsessed over what people wrote on your wall and finally depression once Facebook was banned at your work. It wasn’t the first time you joined a social network. And it won’t be the last. But maybe not for the reasons you might expect.
     
    The concept of social networks predated the web. Originally they described ‘small world’ experiments conducted by mid-20th century sociologists studying how people were connected. Over the last ten years there have been numerous online variations. SixDegrees was the first network I joined in the nineties. Others like Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace and finally Facebook followed. And each time, I dutifully filled in the fields and sold out my friends.
     
    What distinguishes Facebook from its predecessors is the openness of its platform. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg figured out that most networking sites actually did two separate things – they helped people map out their social graphs, and then they overlaid applications to let you do useful things with them. By opening up their platform in May this year, Facebook demonstrated that there was no reason why the company doing the former had to monopolise the latter.
     
    The results have been astonishing. In the last six months over 7,000 apps have been created, leading to over 400 million installs. That makes Facebook one of the most viral platforms in history. Why the rapid uptake? Every time you add a new application or do anything else for that matter, it turns up in a feed broadcasting to everyone else in your network.
     
    Media companies should pay attention. The distribution of entertainment is in desperate need of becoming more social. These days, legally or otherwise, access to content is easy. There is simply no such thing anymore as an exclusive distribution deal. Whether its iTunes, Amazon or dubious indexes like TV-Links, which provides updated location details and RSS feeds of almost every major TV show around – the simple fact is that you can download just about anything within moments of broadcast.
     
    In a world of infinite content on demand, the tricky bit is not getting content but figuring out what to watch.
     
    That’s why networks are useful. In their current form, Electronic Programming Guides are an anachronism. They won’t go away but they will certainly become less like grids and more graphs. Like an application on Facebook, they will show you what your friends are watching and listening to, or introduce you to new people who have similar tastes to you. It certainly makes you rethink just what it will mean to be a media aggregator in the future.
     
    There is already action at the edges. Last.fm, which connects you with the like-minded by profiling your musical taste through an iTunes plug-in was purchased in May this year by CBS Interactive for US$280m. A similar service, iLike, has created one of the most popular apps on Facebook, allowing you to dedicate songs to your friends and run music quizzes. And then there is Joost, the much-hyped P2P television viewer, which has a whole host of social tools, although as yet little use of them.
     
    So will there be an ultimate winner in this space? Facebook is looking pretty hot right now, but my guess is that in the long term there will be no one single network platform provider. It’s pretty easy for people to transfer their contacts to a new platform. Last year, MySpace looked unassailable. Now, not so much. If anything, brands have a lot to do with network proliferation. Sure you can fiddle with your profile settings to juggle your colleagues and your buddies – but it certainly feels safer keeping work contacts in LinkedIn. Not to mention, whatever you might be up to on a dating site.
     
    In reality, we will be part of lots of networks, flipping between them like an optometrist changing lens on a pair of glasses to gain different perspectives on the world. If Google solved the problem of finding things you were looking for, networks will help us discover the things we didn’t know we wanted.
     
    What you know will depend on who you know.
     
     
    Mike Walsh is a leading authority and keynote speaker on the digital media revolution. He is the author of the book ‘Futuretainment’ and advises some of Australia’s leading companies and brands on technology innovation. Sign up for Mike’s free newsletter at www.TheFourthEstate.com
     
     
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