Are Social Networks Just a Feature?

Social networks are now cropping up like mushrooms after a monsoon, most of them slight variations on the MySpaceFacebook model. Unfortunately that trend has pigeonholed the notion of social networks into a web-page paradigm, a virtual Rolodex that grows so big that it lacks context, and hence relevance.

It is time to rethink the whole notion of social networking, and start thinking of it as a feature for other online activities. Already, we see companies like Affinity Circles and Social Platform turning the “social network” into a commodity, by offering turnkey solutions. That’s just the start. It is time to start thinking beyond the web-page paradigm, and think of social networking as part of a larger “experience,” one that starts to blend the best of online and offline worlds.

What got me thinking about this was a phone call from Mathieu Nouzareth, the chief executive office of a little known but fast-growing casual gaming company, Boonty.

He wanted to outline, a new service being launched by his Paris-based start-up. Unlike other casual game companies, Café.com is not looking to convert the gamers into upgrading and paying for a full-featured version of their games.

“The conversion ratio is pretty low, about 1 percent,” says Nouzareth. “Our model is basically free games, but you can add boosts to the game experience.” That is it wants to sell avatars and other such stuff to casual gamers for a few pennies. The model has worked for Habbo Hotel, and a bunch of other online virtual worlds. “Conversion is higher because the entry price is pretty low,” he says. “It is more attractive than a try-buy model.”

The more intriguing and perhaps interesting feature of Café.com is its social networking features. There are elements of presence management, chatting features, and by end of this year there will be voice added to the mix. You can create buddy lists and even build your own homepages. Nouzareth is hoping to build a close enough replica of an offline experience. He doesn’t call it a social network, but that’s what it really is.

Games, at least in the offline world, are a social experience. You visit friends for say a New Year’s Eve bash, and end up playing Monopoly. You talk, you scream, and if you are like me, you get serious enough in your bid to win. Of course you network, i.e. connect with others. Every time families get together, they socialize, they network, and sometimes they play games.

Beyond games, there are other offline activities that rely on social networks. Like watching television! Sure we are living increasingly private lives, but when there are major television events like the Super Bowl, or the World Cup of Cricket, we try and get together with our friends and family and enjoy them together.

A few years ago, when Sex and The City was all the rage, some of my lady friends would organize the “Sex In The City” parties, gathering together and shooing the boys out to the corner pub.

That social networking experience is what Joost aka the Venice Project is trying to mimic in its service. Watching television together online, chatting about it, and some day talking about what they are watching in real time. The best part is that you control your network, something I have argued for in the past.

The social networking is simply embedding itself into services, like say MOG or They are not social networks in the classic sense – aka like Bebo or Facebook or MySpace – but they essentially are social networks. They use the technology to enhance online experiences, which are the things we want to be doing. After all, life doesn’t happen, online or off, inside a MySpace page.