Being “Network Agnostic” is a practice I’ve been preaching over the past few months as my business and personal lives converge on social networking.
It’s a simple concept: don’t let the technology dictate your content, and make sure your content adapts across multiple technologies.
While the concept is simple, the ensuing conversation is huge. How worried should an individual be about the permanence of their social network content? How responsible is a marketer to keep their business connected with users across a host of different networks?
Here are a few thoughts on the matter.
Social Content Isn’t Forever
Imagine the following scenario:
You spend years adding content to a free social network. Links, blogs, photos, videos – anything. The network gets popular, gets acquired or goes public, and the features begin to change – sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse.
You eventually migrate to another network, and a few years later you receive a curt eviction notice via email. Turns out, everybody left, and the network isn’t financially viable anymore. Now your content will disappear in a matter of months – evacuation is now or never.
The first half of that example probably sounds familiar – I could easily be describing Facebook or MySpace.
If you think the second half is just hyperbole then you were never a GeoCities user.
GeoCities was the best way to get a free website off the ground in 1996, and even in 2000 it was still in the game. Now the clock is ticking on that content – it’ll all disappear by the end of the year.
This isn’t a very dire example. GeoCities was always FTP-based, so it was easy to create your own content mirror. Plus, it was crawlable, so your content is cached at Archive.org. If you created something awesome on GeoCities, chances are you could evacuate it before the impending network apocalypse.
Next time you might not be so lucky.
Social Networks Constantly Reinvent a Similar Wheel
Friendster was the first prominent Social Network in America. Now it doesn’t even factor into the domestic conversation – 90% of its use comes from Asia.
People didn’t know that in 2003, so they gamely wrote their bios and uploaded their photos on Friendster. Many of those people migrated to MySpace, where they posted more photos and wrote on a ton of walls. A lot of that same crowd also started to use FaceBook, where they posted yet more photos, wrote on a whole new network of walls, and penned pithy third-person status updates.
For a single user the musical chairs of social networks can be mildly annoying. Do you even have your own copy of those photos? Do you really feel like hunting down all of those high school classmates again?
For a business or a band, annoyance transforms to hindrance. Those 10k fans or 100k plays you mustered up on MySpace? You just have to do them again on FaceBook, Twitter, and whatever comes next. And, as people migrate away from networks that are on the decline, you lose a hard-won audience that was once captive.
Not only that, but you’re putting in time on content that is invisible to many current and potential customers! Social Networks don’t get crawled and archived the same way as typical websites. They are closed loops, by design. That means limited traffic from outside the network, limited benefits from search engine crawling and long-term page rank, and no easy way to export your content in aggregate.
The only solution is to stop treating each network as the be-all and end-all of your online life, whether you’re a person or a brand. You need to diversify. You need to be network agnostic.
Case Study: The Twitter Titanic
The hottest social network of the moment is Twitter. After many months of mushrooming growth the micro-blogging platform hit the zeitgeist like a wrecking ball – even on Oprah. Suddenly, everyone and their mother was on Twitter – literally!
Individuals and businesses are in a hurry to have a conversation, but will that conversation have any value in five years, or even six months?
As more and more people pile on to Twitter, there are more demands made of the network. It isn’t fast enough. It needs a better search feature. Can we get threaded conversations? What about groups? A post archive would be nice, and so would an export feature.
All of it would be nice, but that doesn’t mean it will occur.
Twitter currently operates with no revenue model. It’s run by the brains behind Blogger, who have been there before, and they learned from past lessons. Twitter is purposefully lithe, farming out feature development to apps mining their API. Facebook made itself more addictive by doing the same thing – allowing outsiders to code apps, spawning legions of waring zombies and mafiosos.
Still, open-source doesn’t equal impervious-to-obsolescence. Twitter could easily fizzle like Friendster or fall slowly from favor like MySpace. Every titanic has an iceberg.
When the iceberg hits, what happens to your followers? What about your favorite conversations?
The moral of the story (so far):
the sky isn’t falling, but there’s a strong chance of rain
Here’s what this argument is not.
It is not suggesting that you ignore the online sea change that is social networking. It is not saying all Social Networks are unreliable. It is not about being sparse or overly-protective of your content. It is not downplaying the value of personal connections.
It is encouraging you to be nimble, to rely on some (intentionally) redundant content, and to remember that you get what you pay for. It is reminding you that strategy comes before technology, and that connections come before objectives.
Two years ago we were all on MySpace. Last year we were all on Facebook. Today we’re talking about Twitter. In two years it’s going to be something else. There’s only so much the networks are (or can be) responsible for our content, and the responsibility we have to them is to accept that and be willingly mobile.
Your content strategy can extend across multiple technologies. A intriguing Tweet can also be a FaceBook discussion or the inspiration of a blog. You can host your own snapshot and share it on other networks instead of uploading it separately to each of them. Your users can connect with you across multiple networks, via email, or with profiles on your own site, so that they don’t slip away when a network goes south.
That is network agnostiscm.
This a big topic – so big that it took me two months of note-taking to even arrive at this post.
This is just a fraction of what I hope it can be part of a lasting conversation about what we can do as responsible bloggers and communicators to make sure our content doesn’t become obsolete.
I’m very interested in your comments, further examples, or rebuttals.