A definition of social network maturity

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The other week I gave a talk to De Monfort University’s digital marketing and social media course. Afterwards, I was asked: Why should brands invest in a given social network, if it might not be around tomorrow? 

Is there some criteria that measures social media maturity and suggests that the likes of Vine or Instagram have staying power?

It’s a good question and one that brands ask all the time.  Isn’t it easier just to stick with Facebook and Twitter as they have both the numbers and the track record?

As a result, I’ve tried to offer up a definition of social media – or more accurately social network – maturity.  

To me, that definition involves meeting most of the following criteria:

1 – Critical Mass.  Critical mass doesn’t necessarily mean tens of millions of active users.   Just enough active and committed ones to give a network life.

Instagram with 100+ million active users clearly has it.   However, I think that (mobile photo network) EyeEm has it as well, despite being perhaps 1/20th of the size (disclosure – I’m an EyeEm ambassador).

In fact, a million active users might be enough.  

Remember the virtual world Second Life, which was touted as the next big thing back in 2007/2008?  It never turned out that way of course, but it never vanished either and is still very much alive.    That’s because even though the numbers are huge, it does have:

2 – A defined sub-culture.   I define this as a way of doing things unique to that social network.   These are community norms and conventions, a glue that binds users together.

What’s ‘sneakycommutershot, cloudporn or most famously, a selfie ? They are Instagram hash-tags denoting different types of posts.    They mean little to people outside photo sharing networks, but make perfect sense to those on the inside.

In addition to a defined sub-culture I would say you need:

3 – Communities and sub-groups.  Members of groups or tribes have an incentive to keep logging back in, so that they can talk to their (social media) friends.

Take Instagram for example.   You have edit communities and groups (devoted to taking a master image and editing it), ‘pop’ groups (you all post an image at a given time, and like all other images in the group), and groups that combine a bit of everything as well as a social element such as Rebels United.  

Then you have the Instagramers, Instagram’s group of worldwide super-fans.

These I’d also class as:

4 – Influencers.   Networks that have a critical mass, a defined sub-culture and distinct communities also tend to have their own influencers.  

The Instagramers, though not officially part of Instagram, represent some of the photo network’s most dedicated users.   And brands actively court them as a result. 

Taking Instagram again, the network also has its own in-app celebrities.  

For instance, the ‘selfie’ (largely teens taking pics of themselves) has led to the rise of figures such as Michael Saba, a 15 year old who has acquired 50,000 fans who “fawn over him with almost Bieberesque intensity.”  (Read Write)

People like Michael Saba are not influential outside Instagram – nor do they need to be.   But in Michael Saba’s case, he gives his followers a reason to access the network every day, and what he says and does matters to his fan-base.

Finally, and this is perhaps the least important criteria, mature social networks have their own:

5 – Eco-system.   Photo sharing networks have a range of third party apps that support them. 

There’s the (now Google-owned) Snapseed and the highly popular Camera+ that sit on top of a collection of thousands of photo apps where you can edit your picture before uploading it to Instagram.    Opening up an API to developers obviously helps build this eco-system, which Flickr has done with its App Garden.  

A look at Foursquare and Vine

Note the one factor I don’t include in my list – age.  

Recently the tech press has been talking about Foursquare’s latest efforts to raise funding.   Foursquare launched in 2009, yet it is still trying to find its feet, shifting from gamification and badges to search and discovery.  

I’d argue that despite amassing 30 million odd users, Foursquare doesn’t really have a defined community, sub-culture or influencers.  

It lacks that all-important community glue that many smaller networks have, where the users would truly miss it if it wasn’t around anymore.  

Meanwhile, Vine has done well for Twitter since launching, with close to 3% of US iPhone users creating their own six second video clip.  

Right now, Vine still has novelty value.  It touches on an already established sub-culture, that of the animated gif.  And Twitter is doing its best to introduce conventions that users will already be familiar with, such as trending hashtags.   

Time will tell whether Vine manages to put down social media roots, though the initial signs are promising.


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