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June 14, 2007
The BBC loves it. Rupert Murdoch loves it. Even the government is falling in love with it.
But like Grandstand, Marathon bars, the Drachma and the Beatles, everything has a lifecycle.
What am I talking about?
MySpace, Facebook and Bebo have quickly grown to become some of the biggest websites in the world. Facebook’s growth has been particularly impressive: 400,000 just over six months ago is 2,000,000 today.
But how long can these websites (if we can call them that) continue to expand? And what will happen when they reach their peak?
One small event triggered me to wonder whether social networking sites are ultimately doomed: My mum joined one.
Now, I can cope with this. I’m a grown-up and I know she’s only joined so she can spy on the local trouble-making kids (ah, if only Facebook had net curtains).
I think most mums are probably as inquisitive as mine. And they’ve got better things to do than join their own special site for middle-aged people. They’d much rather jump on-board the kids’ version and use it to their advantage.
But what happens when everyone’s mum is on Facebook, MySpace or Bebo? How will the yoof react?
Facebook I find particularly troubling. The USP of Facebook was that it was an academic site, useful for arranging nights out or joining groups where you slag off your lecturers. But then they opened up to everyone. Not only does this make privacy an issue, but it also leads to PSD, or Parental Snooping Disease.
While I can still just about see a use to Facebook, I wonder whether the fact that everyone is on there – and the ebbing away of the site’s coolness that will follow – will be enough to tip people over the edge and back to their previously hermitic existence when they weren’t connected to their ‘mini-feed’.
Ultimately, we’ll find ourselves asking ‘Do I really need Facebook/Bebo/Myspace?’ and then asking ‘Is that need outweighed by the fact that having my mum on there is mortally embarrassing?’. The more time I spend on Facebook, the more I begin to think it’s like Big Brother (the TV show rather than the Orwellian concept, although the latter may also be true). It’s addictive to start with, and then you realise it’s just wasting your time.
This isn’t what big business wants to hear. They’re piling onto the social networking bandwagon faster than you can say ‘cash-cow’. The trouble is… might they arrive too late?
And if they are too late and social networking recedes, then what next? Will we find new and more involving ways to connect with people online, or will we rediscover the phone, texting, and even (whisper it) talking face-to-face?