Big Media’s Crush on Social Networking
I WAS wandering around recently in Second Life, the much-ballyhooed online virtual world, and had a nice chat with one of its “residents.” But at the end of the talk he (or perhaps she; you never really know in these digital dioramas, where anyone can create an identity and just about anything else) asked if he could add me to his “friends” list and thereby keep tabs of my comings and goings in the online world. “Sure,” I replied, not because I was yearning to keep in touch but because it just struck me as rude to turn down such an invitation.
Last week, a similar episode occurred in my real life, when I prepared to leave a meeting with someone I had never met before but really liked. This time, my host asked me if I was part of LinkedIn, a buzzy Web site intended to link people with similar business interests. The site has gained much attention in the tech industry: Business 2.0 magazine recently hailed it as “MySpace for grownups.” (MySpace, the social networking site owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is, of course, the ne plus ultra of such Web sites, where young and youngish people put all kinds of information about themselves online in search of friends, dates, music and whatever.)
In the case of LinkedIn, I was privately relieved to be able to say that I had not yet joined, although I noticed that people kept asking me if I was a member. And, I must acknowledge that the invitation, like the one in Second Life, irked me on some level — though it was a nice gesture after one meeting. It struck me as far more personal than just exchanging business cards, yet less of a commitment than adding someone to your instant-message “buddy list.” Yet a tad forward nonetheless: like a three-cheek kiss from strangers on a distant shore.
Don’t get me wrong. I like people, and interacting with so many of them is one of the great pleasures of my job. And, heck, all that journalists do all day long is call people who may not want to hear from them. But that said, I have always recoiled at the use of the word “network” as a verb. I wouldn’t want to join any social networking Web site that would want me as a member. You might say that I am into antisocial networking.
I say this in full recognition of the rampaging popularity of social networks and the fact that big media companies — particularly the large club that still envies Mr. Murdoch’s snatching of MySpace in 2005 for what now looks like a knockdown price — have developed a full-bore teenage crush on these businesses.
Social networking is a close cousin of the other obsession of the moment: user-generated content. Of course, there is a difference. User-generated content is basically anything someone puts on the Web that is not created for overtly commercial purposes; it is often in response to something professionally created, or is derivative of it. So, it could be a blog, a message board, a homemade video on YouTube, or a customer’s book review on Amazon.com.
Social networking, on the other hand, is something potentially deeper — it represents a way to live one’s life online. In many ways, it is the two-dimensional version of what sites like Second Life aspire to be in 3-D: the digital you. And that ties to another earnestly overused term of art at the moment: engagement.
Engagement basically refers to the amount of time people spend doing one thing — reading a magazine, watching a TV show — but also to the depth of their participation. Do they vote on “American Idol”? Flock to Disneyland? Go to the NBC Web site after “The Office” to watch deleted scenes? Or, now, do they integrate their favorite media into their digital personas?
Sony, for instance, paid $65 million for a video-sharing site called Grouper.com and started a nifty service through which you can load your favorite clip from one of its movies — say, Jack Nicholson barking, “You can’t handle the truth” at Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men” — onto your MySpace or Facebook page.
Over the last few weeks, other media companies have accelerated their efforts in social networking. For example, the Hearst Corporation on Jan. 8 bought a small company called eCrush.com. And the Walt Disney Company, the CBS Corporation, Viacom and NBC have all been busy planning new social networking features for their various Web sites.
Many of the ventures sound like logical extensions of existing media brands because, hey, media companies are all about attracting and keeping audiences and then figuring out ways to bring them closer to marketers.
Hearst’s acquisition of eCrush and related Web sites fits nicely with a coming revamp of Cosmogirl.com, Teenmag.com and other online publications for teenagers. One of the sites it acquired, espinthebottle.com, is basically a flirting site for teenagers that vets its participants’ information before matching kids up, to keep the fun clean and safe. So far, the site has attracted more than 3.8 million “hotties” (its term).
Chuck L. Cordray, the vice president for Hearst Magazines Digital, noted that part of the appeal of eCrush is that it is a stand-alone business that can also become a feature of other Hearst online ventures.
“It’s a new way of fulfilling a mission magazines have fulfilled for some time, which is creating communities of interest,” Mr. Cordray said.
What is striking about many of these mainstream media ventures into social networking is that they mirror the big debate over whether Internet surfers will continue to migrate to big portal sites like AOL and Yahoo or will use widely available tools to fashion their own customized Web lives.
According to the online ratings firm ComScore Media Metrix, most of the Top 10 social networking sites as of December 2006 were still big portals like MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo Geocities, Lycos Tripod and AOL. Of course, if social networking soon becomes a popular feature of existing media brands’ Web efforts, its success will be measured by how much it drives traffic and revenue to existing brands, not just by whether it creates winning new ones. For now, NBC, like Disney, is placing most of its bets on integrating features like personalized pages into its existing Web sites rather than trying to build new destinations.
IT can be a tricky business when audiences evolve from being consumers to members. For instance, the need to keep out the wrong element adds a new layer of complexity to the media mix.
MySpace, which according to ComScore Media Metrix attracts more than one-third of the entire social networking audience in the United States, was sued last week by several families who accused it of negligence and recklessness; they said predators were introduced to their underage daughters on the site. MySpace denied any wrongdoing but has been working on ways to make the site safer.
Know this: if you are part of the social networking wave, you will have all the “friends” you can handle. The invite is the new handshake. Get ready for a lot of opportunities to join all kinds of networks — and, one hopes, some appropriately Webby new way to politely say, “No, thank you.”