Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Rise of the Social Networks

In this morning's Shelf Awareness, it was reported that Amazon had made an investment in Shelfari - a social networking site for book lovers. Doesn't it seem like we're hearing more and more about social networks, these days?

Or, don't you really know what a social network is? I have to say that social networks aren't on my radar as an internet user, but they are certainly on the radar of my children. MySpace is the biggest social network out there, and if you are a parent of teenagers (I have 3 in that category), then you know what a wonderful - terrible place it can be. Or you may have heard of YouTube, the place where you can post video clips, this is another social networking site.

MySpace and YouTube are social networking sites that are open to just about everyone. But Shelfari is segmenting the market. They are just going after book lovers. Trying to get book lovers to recommend books to each other. I am sure that there are many other social networking sites out there, even though I don't know what they are. One thing I'm sure of though, we are going to see more and more of them.

Why am I so sure? A few reasons, one - we are a nation that has lots of communities. Some of them are generally popular, Fantasy baseball, or Nascar, or Political Commentary. Others are highly specialized, like: 17th Century Sculpture, 1969 Camaros, or Saddle Seat Horseback Riding. The internet has already allowed lovers of these more specialized communities to find each other, and soon, they will all have their own social networking sites. Now that there are a few social networking sites out there, there will soon be a technical model for building them, and then someone will create the the software to set them up quickly.

The last reason is that the search engines have indexed so much stuff, that we can’t find what we are looking for anymore. If we are looking up information about a hobby, we get so much stuff back that it is hard to sift through it all. The Social Network sites are going to serve the purpose of sifting through and culling the best information out there for us.

In an earlier post, I mentioned how one publisher I was speaking with was moaning about not being able to get their books in the top eight Google Search results. And if they go below that, will anyone ever even click through? How many of us actually click on any search results much past the second page of results? So, we have a conundrum, companies supplying product are mixed in with all the other results, and customers looking for product might not find it because it might be listed too far down in the search results.

Isn’t it interesting how we have gone through this cycle where the technology helped us so much, but now we need the human element to help the technology? The social networks will apply the human element to the technology, and the internet will once again become a place of trusted information.

There is a big opportunity for publishers in the social networks. By their very nature, the social networks will become ‘trusted’ sources of information. Books, in our culture, are already consider ‘trusted’ sources of information, so they are a perfect fit for the social network.

This week’s announcement of widgets by both HarperCollins and Random House will help publishers get their ‘shelf space’ in these social networks. The widgets are like online books that can be browsed from the social network site, and then bought through anyone who placed the widget on the site.

Now, all we need is a way to identify social networks so that they are easily distinguished from other websites and blogs. Then we can target our books to these communities. This could be a natural way for books to continue to be relevant in our digital age.

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