by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

You may or may not remember mood rings but they were the coolest fad when I was a kid.

Instead of sparkling gems, the rings (or wristbands) were filled with a substance that reacted to the temperature of your skin. It turns out that there were approximate corollaries between heat and emotion, so the rings evidenced moods.

It was very cool. For a short while, everyone seemed to want to identify one another’s moods. And then everyone moved on; since they'd been able to identify and share their moods prior to the invention of the rings, they went right on doing it without them.

What if social networks are our modern day equivalent?

  • We’ve always been members of networks, whether labeled (like school alumni) or not (like fans of Victorian murder mysteries). We just have the technology to formalize them
  • People get that momentary rush of joining so-and-so network(s), and perhaps finding an old or new friend who shares the same thrill
  • Eventually, the networks get too big, too diverse, too cluttered with advertising or friend requests from utter strangers...the openness the drives initial adoption is also what over time crapifies the experience
  • More importantly, they aren’t really enabling activities that are much different, or more valuable, than what the user previously accomplished (or ignored) offline

So member activity wanes, perhaps to be replaced by new, though slightly less enthusiastic, membership in the next network

The advertising model has driven most of the development and valuations of social networks like MySpace and Facebook. Broad, horizontal aggregations of consumers mean more eyeballs blinking at ads. As such, they're much like the television networks they've replaced; though social networks swap pre-produced  programming with user-provided content, social-ness is a byproduct, or means to an end. What matters -- i.e. what's monetized -- is that consumers are there, using the networks, just like they used to watch broadcast TV.

Does more time spent with a brand in a social community (chatting about it, downloading branded wallpaper for your phone, or whatever) translate into more, more cost-effective, or more sustainable sales? Although lots of folks are trying to figure it out, so far nobody has a clue.

It's almost as if the stuff that the big social networks take for granted almost precludes the ad channel (or branding environment) models from working.

That's not to say they can't; I believe they not only can, but already do. There are four basic, unique, and truly valuable qualities of social networks that cannot be duplicated offline, and thus could very well drive future development:

  • Provide access to greater and better information. I know it's a hoot to get Twitters from friends, but it’s not necessarily useful information. And a posting wall full of bickering rants about one musician or another isn't better info. Networks that provide stuff that is truly useful, whether due to its entertainment value and/or utility, has potential to grow
  • Help people outsource their consent. The value of ratings, recommendations and  endorsements is a huge only-get-it-here benefit of online networks. I'm not talking about the viral forwarding of a funny video, but a group...qualified by its participants...helping one another make purchase (or life) decisions
  • Become learning/evolving communities. For networks to thrive, they need to get smarter over time, whether that’s through members learning more about each other, developing track records (ebay's seller ranking system is a basic example). This is a small but incomprehensibly important step from being aggregations of opinions (qualified by nothing more than their having been expressed) to understanding
  • Be autonomous. Participants must have ultimate control over their own information, as well as the environment(s) in which it is shared. We can survey their tolerance for enduring marketing/branding as an implicit, necessary evil of the media, but I suspect that they'd happily ban it if there were no other impact on their experience

So is this driven from email accounts? Vertical search? Are they all connected, using OpenID or some other identity authentication and activity history tool? 

Sure, since I suspect we're using different early or transitional technology labels to describe the same general behaviors.

And, in some way, it might include describing our very own version of mood rings.

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/04/modern-day-mood.html

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