Gazing at your Own Navel: On Social Networks, Blogging, and Brands

So earlier this week I signed up for a Facebook account.

The same day I read Giga Om’s post on his “long standing belief that social networks are going to become mere commodities.“ (He uses the example of Ning adding additional networks on its platform, decreasing the individual value of each individual network, as a proof point.)

On the whole, he is right. The value of a social network is not in the functionality and technology itself. Feature parity should be achieved rather quickly on any new set of innovative aspects that a MySpace, Facebook, or anyone will introduce. Rather, like all media properties (whether digital or otherwise), a social network has value based on:
1. The information contained within it. In this case, the information about the friends and connections in network.
2. The signal value communicated to society about who a user is as a person. In this case, what being on a social network represents to others.

Essentially, what really matters is brand.

What does it mean for someone to be on Facebook? What does it mean to be on MySpace? What does it mean to be on the dozens and dozens other general-interest social networks or vertical ones which are profiled daily on Mashable. In other words, what does it say about you, who you are as a person? The answer to this question is one reason why the essay about “viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace” resonated throughout the blogosphere over the past two weeks.

In the end, each media property means something different to a different set of people. It’s the brand that’s important, not the functionality.

Take an analog analog here… a magazine. Readers of a magazine like Time could care less about the printing press used to make the publication, whether it was inked with the latest technology or an antiquated one. What they do care about is:
1. The information contained within it. In this case, a weekly synopsis of the news.
2. The signal value communicated to society about who they are as a person. In this case a person who has The Economist or Us Weekly on his coffee table is potentially saying something different about who he is as opposed to Time.

I signed up for a Facebook account because:
1. Many people I know and trust and respected are all of a sudden using it, and I assumed that because they find it useful, so would I.
2. It’s reached a tipping point where it potentially no longer is about high school and college students, but rather my peer set.

There’s an interesting meme going through the blogosphere in the past week asking “now that we have social networks are blogs obsolete?” Tony Hung argues that rise of social networking sites doesn’t mean the twilight of blogging is near, but rather that it is a different medium than the social networks, as blogging is “about creating and developing [and publishing] well thought out opinions.”

Along those lines, Nivi just posted a recommendation to everyone to start a vertical blog rather than a personal one. He says a vertical blog is “… for your readers, … focused, … branded [my bold], …[and] attracts a specific audience.” He concludes by writing, “Personal blogs are dead, long live vertical blogs.” And I think he’s right. To me it’s looking increasingly like social networks are platforms for communicating information about yourself and blogs are platforms for communication about a specific topic. The exception, however, is for those who consider their own name/identity a brand and a vertical subject in and of itself. (I don’t, so I personally maintain both vertical blogs of GenuineVC and that of the WebInnovatorsGroup. Now if I could only find the time to also launch a very niche vertical content blog at my domain…)

Again, what matters here again is the brand: what info it represents and what it conveys about the reader.

When I explore a potential VC investment in a consumer-facing online media startup opportunity, one of the questions I ask is: “what is the long-term potential to build a long-term brand?” With any media property, it either needs to have wide mass appeal with an adequate monetization rate or a niche appeal with a very high monetization rate. Whether or not it has a social element to it depends on the audience. But in reality, from here on out, I suspect almost all of new online media will be some type social media.

So, yes, I’ve signed up for Facebook. Now whether I actually continue to use it is another matter… it has to continually satisfy these above two requirements.

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.