Grownups, social networking and the Facebook-AOL connection

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Last Friday, as part of the reporting for my column about Facebook, I chatted with Gina Bianchini and Marc Andreessen, co-founders of Ning. (Andreessen might also have been involved with some thing called Netscape that I seem to remember people talking about a lot in the mid-1990s.) Ning, which enables people to set up customized social networks, was founded only a few months after Facebook and MySpace, but hasn’t taken off quite like they have. (Has anything? Ever?)

An abridged transcript of the conversation is below. There’s a certain amount of self-serving marketing spin in it, but also some great insights into what exactly online social networking is good for and why exactly grownups might want to avail themselves of it:

Gina: We think there’s an analogy between AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy as sort of walled gardens in the early Internet and Facebook, MySpace and YouTube today. It’s still about you joining Facebook, it’s still about you joining MySpace. It’s you joining their world. We’re really about people creating their own environments, their own worlds, and that’s mainstream behavior. That’s why the Internet empowered millions of people to create their own Websites. What we’re looking to do at Ning, and where we think the market ultimately is going, is where, as a 35-year-old woman, you might be joining five different social networks. They all have their own element to them, and you have different facets of yourself across those different networks as opposed to one single account on one über walled garden.

Marc: For example, a 40-year-old woman in the future might be on one network for her high school class and another network for mothers with three or more kids, another network for members of her church, another network for people who like to hike in the hills near where she lives, another network for people who like the author of her favorite TV show. Things are going to get superspecialized to the things that people really love and care about and are important to them in their daily lives.

Me: But at least right now it seems a lot easier to join Facebook, where you have a more limited element of that. You can join different groups [on Facebook] that look at different things.

Marc: That was …

Gina: That was the big …

Marc: We’re fighting over who gets to answer that question. We love that question. That was the attraction of AOL in 1994. When the Web came out, when we started Netscape, we went around and met with your parent company, and many many other people, and the response that we got across the board was this Web thing is too weird, too esoteric, too hard to use. Everybody’s already on AOL, AOL’s so easy to use, you can do whatever you want on AOL. In fact, your parent company turned down an investment in Netscape on the basis of that exact theory, which cost them about half a billion dollars.

Me: That was a cheap one for Time Warner.

Marc: That was a cheap one for Time Warner. The point is just the evolution of what happened with AOL: AOL introduced tens of millions of people to the idea of being online, and got them into that experience. Then they reached a point when they’d been online for a year or two and they said, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ And the answer to what was next was the Web. Even people who kept their AOL subscriptions to be on an ISP started using Websites. And so instead of getting information on music from AOL you went to MTV.com, and instead of reading Seventeen magazine on AOL you’d go to seventeen.com, and obviously the world evolved in that direction.

That was a very, very big debate in the 90s that got definitively decided. One of the things that we think is ironic about the current time is that exact debate is being fought out, except that the new walled gardens are MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. We’re not predicting the instantaneous death of Facebook or MySpace. We’re saying there’s more than a billion people on the Internet today, more than 900 million of them have yet to even discover social networking at all, so the big general services have a lot of room to grow. But all these tens of millions of people who are now becoming familiar with these concepts are now starting to say ‘Okay, what do we do next?’

Me: What is the valuable thing about social networking? Is it that there are certain things where you want to have one-to-one communication, certain things where you’re okay with being public to the whole world, but there seem to be a lot of interactions which are in between?

Marc: Yeah, well the big thing is people love connecting with other people. People love connecting. People are …

Gina: People love people.

Marc: People love people. People are inherently social. And one of the great things about social networking is that it appeals to the extroverts because they get to meet a lot of people, but it appeals to the introverts because they get to interact without having to do it face to face. It appeals to everybody. People love this stuff, and the whole history of the Internet in many ways is this story. The Web was in many ways a way for people to interact in new ways.

The second thing I would say is, a lot of people look at social networking as it exists today with the feature set it has today and they say, ‘Well, how many people are gonna use that?’ But of course it’s going to change and evolve a lot in the next five years, and the capabilities of what you’re going to be able to do and how you’re going to be able to connect in a social networking-like environment are going to expand a lot–in part by incorporating a lot more video, a lot more real time communication, incorporating voice over IP, incorporating, years from now, 3-D environments. It’s just going to get richer and richer and richer and richer. The upshot of that is if you think it’s at all interesting now it’s going be a lot more interesting in two or three years.

Me: I’ll say that with Facebook, it’s the first time social networking has held my attention.

Marc: And there’s a great example, right. Social networking emerged in about 2001 with Friendster. Friendster had about six months of glory and then they basically shot themselves in the head …

Me: Didn’t they come out in 2003?

Marc: Was it as late as 2003? I think it was a little bit earlier.

Gina: It was 2003.

Marc: Was it really 2003? It was that recent? So they came out in 2003. I knew they had started working on it earlier. [I checked later. Friendster was founded in 2002, and emerged as a major Web phenomenon in 2003.] And they had about six months activity and then kind of shot themselves in the head and tanked. And then the people who were on Friendster, which was a very early-adopter group, then jumped to Orkut, they were on there for six months and then left that, essentially turning it over to the Brazilians. Then the MySpace thing took off, a year and a half after that, outside of Silicon Valley even, among a totally different group of people. And then this Facebook thing takes off, originally at Harvard and then at Ivy League college campuses and then at college campuses worldwide.

So now it’s 2007, right, so now you’re five years into it, and a lot of people who consider themselves connected people are just finding out about it now. So take your typical 38-year-old or 58-year-old in Iowa or Germany, they might find out about it next year or the year after. That just gives you a sense of market size and the time required for these things to evolve. Over the next three or four or five years this stuff is going to reach a much larger number of people than it’s reached so far. It’s just getting started. And that’s something that people in our industry have a hard time wrapping their heads around, because it seems like it’s already been out there for so long.

Gina: Just to give you a sense of a day in the life of me: Yesterday I got an e-mail from the guy who runs 50 Cent’s management company, G-Unit Productions, about creating a social network. I got an e-mail from the head of digital for the 4H Clubs of America, six million teens. Anytime you have hip-hop stars and the 4H club looking at the same types of technology and how they can apply it to their lives and their organizations, it’s tapping into something quite powerful.

Marc: A friend of mine in New York is using it. His mother in law lives in Puerto Rico, he’s got a new kid, and so the videos of the new kid are going straight up on the Ning social network for his family. There’s a dozen, two dozen family members on it, and at that point it’s totally locked down, totally private. You’ve got other networks that are wide open, anybody can join, and then you’ve got a lot that are in the middle, where it’s not terribly restrictive, but they’re around a specific interest. Our view is that there are going to be millions of these things, literally millions. Because there millions of families, and millions of things that people are interested in, and millions of places in the world, and millions of all kinds of things.

Gina: There are 70 million blogs. Some percentage of those are probably better done as social networks.

Me: So in terms of Facebook right now, you guys are pretty positive on it but see it as a transitional stage?

Marc: Yeah, yeah, it’s a big deal. Facebook’s a really big deal because it’s introducing tens of millions of people to these concepts. And it’s gonna keep doing that. It’s going to be super successful.

Gina: Like AOL.

Marc: The AOL comparison is not intended at all to be snarky. AOL ultimately got in trouble because they were a dialup ISP and people switched to broadband. Facebook’s not going have that problem. But like AOL they’re going to bring a very large number of people online, and people are going to get a lot of value out of that, and then a lot of them are gonna say, ‘Okay, now that I understand this, I can do more with this.’ Our view is, people are gonna say, well now I want Facebook for my family, I want Facebook for my church, I want Facebook for my school. Not Facebook for my school, but an actual, dedicated social network for my school. I want Facebook for my band, for my TV show, right on down the line. I want Facebook for my business. And those are going to be much more tailored and customized environments than any of these big walled gardens let you build. Our view is they both win, they both do just fine. At least for a long period of time.

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