Published: April 22, 2014
(Updated on May 5th, see bottom) There may be countless platforms out there, but there are really only two types of social networks: Content networks and connection networks. This may seem like an arbitrary division, but it is fundamental to understanding the present and future state of social media.
On one side of the matrix are content networks like YouTube and Tumblr. Content networks are (or were) basically broadcast mediums – built on an input-output architecture. Users created things, uploaded them, and hoped for an audience. Now, these platforms are evolving into things that resemble clubs or membership organizations.
On the other side of the matrix are connection networks like Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn – which is sort of the ultimate connection network. These platforms rest on users’ collective ability to entice and interact with more users. The methods of interaction are a cocktail of normal conversation, photos, and anything else one can link to. Separate networks can overlap at the margins – and when networks collide things go viral. It’s akin to watching a frog leap from lily pad to lily pad in a pond.
Of course, there is a middle ground here. Facebook relies on user networks to push outside content to Facebook timelines. Look no further than Facebook’s purchase of Instagram or the Paper app for evidence of the convergence of content and connection.
Twitter, a connection network, has steadily moved towards being a content network. Now, the artists, journalists, and enthusiasts who have been connected there are able to edit and post visual content in increasingly creative ways, get the latest breaking news from on the ground as it happens, and generally tell a more complete social story.
Brands are becoming increasingly aware of this. More companies than ever before are using Twitter to respond to customer questions, demands, and comments – and how this is being driven from the ground up. Unsatisfied customers are increasingly turning to Twitter to make public their latest complaints, and brands are just now starting to get up to speed.
This is the power of the connection network. One tweet from one person is as if by chance noticed by someone with millions of followers, some public stature, or both, and boom. The network trains its gaze. The only thing brands can do is respond thoughtfully and transparently – that’s the game.
On the other side, YouTube is a full-blown content network that is gravitating toward being a connection network. For YouTube this makes sense. It is building a connected-network (a.k.a subscribers) logic on top of its existing architecture, has YouTube-only featured channels with very high-quality material, and is becoming more of a “web destination” every day.
YouTube is interesting for marketers for any number of reasons, but, as with Instagram or LinkedIn’s Pulse, the content game and multimedia space is a place where creativity can trump all – or the opposite, of course. Is the two-minute, multi-million dollar video delivering a solid ROI? No doubt it was fun to make, but can it make any money?
The answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle. Facebook has consistently been able to generate substantial ad revenue, Twitter just exceeded investor expectations, and YouTube is an ever-bigger piece in the Google puzzle. To be sure, all three are massive, with users counted in the billions, and that helps. But they would not have grown so large without doing some things right.
Both Facebook and Twitter are generating the majority of their ad revenue on mobile – where connection networks are strongest and content networks find their greatest challenges. Now, as mobile screens get bigger, devices get stronger, and data transfer rates increase, the challenge becomes one of sustainability.
But, maybe the real indicator of the the future of social lies somewhere else – TripAdvisor. Whereas the major platforms need to hit a moving target in their markets, TripAdvisor has become a unique and highly valuable mix of content and connection by doing one thing and doing it well. A simple review site has turned into an indispensable resource for leisure and business travelers alike by fostering community around something many people find very important.
This is the future of social media – and media more generally, if you ask me. The create-broadcast-view-advertise-repeat formula is dead. We live in an on-demand world where small, interested, collaborative communities can drive and sustain creative ventures across any number of sectors.
The convergence of content and connection networks is just beginning – and it is exciting.
Update: At Engage in London (see presentation below on Slideshare), I presented the fact that content networks have grown more than connection networks in the last 12 months, and showed the gravities of different networks.
- LinkedIn is expanding towards Content (creating blog, buying Pulse, etc.)
- Facebook is expanding more towards content (Instagram, Facebook Paper, etc.)
- YouTube is expanding left, trying to help companies build more connections, build more subscribers