Life after Facebook, and the coming "Dark Period"

[Editor's note: This is an Op-Ed by Bernard Moon, co-founder for GoingOn Networks.

Apologies to Bernard for not publishing this sooner. He submitted this piece before Ballmer's recent statement about Facebook being a fad, and he goes into more depth about why this is so.]

This past week, I’ve been talking with friends about how great Facebook is for connecting with old friends.

But I felt like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” hitting his alarm clock and rolling out of bed over and over again. I’d seen it before. The same thing happened with MySpace a few years ago, and with Friendster before that, only Facebook has taken social networking to new segments of society.

I believe online social networking is reaching a culminating stage, and has a near-term end. Rapid growth will plateau, innovation will dramatically decrease, and there won’t be any more large aggregation plays.

The question for me every time I experience a new social network is how long will the novelty effect last? Two months? Six months? Twelve? Regardless of Friendster’s server issues during its first year, I remember the novelty and fun of connecting with new and old friends, commenting on their profiles, and seeing what they’re about. This lasted about 4 months for me. MySpace’s novelty effect was shorter for me since I didn’t get into its music scene, but for many people this is what fueled MySpace’s hyper-growth. It had content that drew users back and increased freedom in tweaking profile pages created a highly active community, but eventually many of its users suffered from burnout and started to become inactive. Now the most common friend request I get on MySpace is from some small business or porn spammer.

I assume Facebook went through the exercise of examining this novelty effect of profile-centric platforms and how to create sustainable activity beyond the core base of college students checking each other out. In a brilliant move, Facebook opened it up its platform and allowed companies to build applications to create an ecosystem that would hopefully lead to a vibrant, lasting community.

Content and information is a primary driver of sustainable communities, so these applications along with Facebook’s “Mini-Feeds” feature (also prominent in Friendster and Linkedin to retain user activity) have become the engines for Facebook’s sustainability. They have also created an investment fund to encourage new applications to be built on top of the Facebook platform. Will this be enough or will this just extend the novelty effect a bit longer for them?

Even MySpace has gotten into the content game. If you haven’t visited in a while, check them out to see how they expanded their content offering. Now they have a wider base of content and higher quality content than their life before Fox with sections on books, music videos, TV on demand, a sports channel, and more. So will this be enough?

While most of us won’t suffer from social networking fatigue that some new media gurus, such as Jason Calacanis, have encountered, social networking burnout or losing interest in this attention economy is inevitable for most.

So what happens after Facebook? Will there be another mega social network that’s the new thing? Maybe Orkut makes a comeback in the U.S. or Yahoo!’s Mash takes off? Most likely not.

Online social networking is at a stage where it is becoming a commonplace feature in many web properties. Along these lines, there will be more niche communities, such as the already successful Yelp and new entrants like Global Grind that have great content to drive their success and sustainability.

I also predict that the next stage of social networking will be a dark period where there will not be any great leaps in innovation until technologies are created to increase the utility of such networks and information that capture greater value that what is currently present and data rights and ownership issues are worked out. It’s great to connect with friends and acquaintances, keep up with their lives and define your relationships, but -what we don’t have yet is improved natural language, relationship, and sentiment analysis engines mining for more relevant or useful information.

Some of the things useful things that we’re dreaming up now won’t realistically be around for a few more years yet: An intelligent bot that can recommend a business partner that you were seeking based on 5 specific qualities of personality and experience; a service that could connect you to the Facebook profile of a car seller on eBay and recommends that you contact a mutual friend that the two of you share to close the deal; a way to recommend a new restaurant based on two Yelpers whose reviews you really follow.

Advancements in technology would not only enhance the front-end of social networking features, but also for data and analytics tracking on the backend. Why haven’t advertisers seen a good return on their dollars on social networks? The click through rates have been relatively low even with demographic targeting. What if demographics were matched with databases containing consumer buying patterns or with active users of sites such as Power Reviews? Advertisers would know that a person is a frequent buyer of camping equipment or flash memory drives and can sell ad space to such highly vetted users. Eventually, advertisers can target people based on their stated company and occupation. Create designer clothing? How about targeting a buyer from Macy’s? Better yet, how about 70 buyers from 30 major department stores worldwide? There are less technical hurdles in this area, but more legal and strategic roadblocks here. Who owns the data and information? Consumers and end-users? Social networks? Companies? How can a win-win be created for companies and social networks that collect this information, so that the sharing of information produces economic returns? It might be years before these issues are resolved and could take longer than our technologies catching up.

Beyond this dark period, the next stage of social networking will finally impact other platforms in significant ways. Social networks will become platform agnostic and more ubiquitous. Mobile is an area ripe for someone to conquer, but the platform that interests me is the set-top box and interactive TV. Yes, it’s back to the promises of the early 90s. While the cable TV and satellites industries move slower than old media, there is a lot of potential for “lazy interactivity” and the TV again. A wealth of information is waiting to be tapped into from set-top boxes combined with social networking on interactive TV platforms. This could be a gold mine of data for advertisers. Profiles matched with viewing and listening habits? Awesome for those sitting on Madison Avenue.

It will definitely be interesting to see how Facebook and social networking evolve over the next decade. These are exciting times since we are at the leading edge of technology and how it affects cultural and individual behavior.