A Taxonomy of Social Networks?

Earlier this week, Om called social networks a feature. It’s a good point, though, one that seems all too obvious to someone like me who’s covered way too many social networks and often ends up bored before making it through yet another registration form.

But one thing I think he glosses over is a distinction between niche networks and social networks as a feature. Both are alternatives to the blank slate of MySpace and its wannabes. And both, especially the best ones, capitalize on communities that already exist — like people who love a certain videogame or parents that send their kids to the same daycare center.

There is a difference between setting up yet another ‘meeting place for pet owners,’ or a network for people who work-out, or a ‘MySpace for old folks’, and waiting for them to arrive, versus using social tools to connect people who already share a common interest or real-world relationship.

You could make even more of a distinction between social networks that help you do something or achieve a certain goal, like LinkedIn or Flickr, and networks that are just a social connection. Facebook also likes to consider itself a tool, putting it in the same category as LinkedIn, but making a site so functional may have the side effect of making it hard to monetize. LinkedIn and Xing, on the other hand, generate significant revenue from people who are used to paying for business expenses, though they’re both still hoping to gain better financial stability.

So here’s the beginnings of a taxonomy of social networks: blank slate (e.g. MySpace), target audience (e.g. any of the many SNs for mommies), existing interest (e.g. Flixster), existing community (e.g. local soccer league website), and purpose-driven tool (e.g. LinkedIn). Which of these could have the most opportunity?

Blank slates are pretty much over, though I would have said that before Bebo made its ascent.

Target audiences can reek too much of ad verticals. And once you start asking people to split their digital personas too much, you’re basically betting that they’re going to be willing to maintain multiple profiles on multiple networks.

Existing interests, I would say are a promising area, and existing communities as well. But this has to be extremely well-integrated into the activity — for instance last.fm participating silently in your music listening and there for you with up-to-the-minute stats whenever you’re there for it.

Everyone and their mother wants to build white-label social network to serve an existing interest or community these days, but most of the stuff I’ve tried using is pretty crappy. Marc Canter blogged about Om missing his contributor in the space, People Aggregator, as well as his competitors IBM, Five Across, KickApps, and CrowdFactory.

However, there’s clearly a market for these companies, even if it’s coming from Cisco (Cisco?!). As for a market for their products? Well, Yahoo Groups is clearly due for a dethroning.

As for social tools, these taxonomy categories are awfully close, and this could verge into my ideas of target audiences and interests a bit. However, there’s a difference between a place to hang out for X kind of people, and a place to get X done. Like I said above, social tools like LinkedIn and Facebook have had varying levels of financial success, but I have to think becoming an integral part of getting stuff done could be made into a business.

So can all these options coexist? One of the commenters on Om’s post brings up the very valid point of identity management. Some form of integration between the proliferating places to maintain your digital self is clearly due — and perhaps an opportunity for yet another kind of company.

By all means, feel free to chime in if you think I’ve got it wrong.