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Social Networking: A bubble or an inexorable part of our lives?

The new Outlook. (c) Microsoft
The new Outlook. (c) Microsoft
Last week, while signing off my introductory column on life in the digital world, I had said the time will come soon when you just won’t be able to ignore the Web World and its happenings. 
 
In fact, I believe, quite strongly, that that time is upon us to live in the real as well as the virtual world, simultaneously.
 
Take for example, Hotmail users. Did you know that the world’s largest software maker, Microsoft, which holds the ownership of maybe one of the world’s oldest email services, Hotmail, decided last week to re-design it? Or, to rename it as Outlook?
 
Yes, that’s right. Hotmail as a brand has vanished since Microsoft has decided to call it Outlook henceforth. Now, what would Sabeer Bhatia say to that? Mr Bhatia, an Indian-American entrepreneur, was the co-founder of Hotmail, which he then sold off for $400 million in 1997-98 to Microsoft. I believe Hotmail still has the largest number of email users (though I need to get that verified someday). Well, at least it is there at the top of all email services, despite all those years having gone by.
 
Now, before you wonder why your Hotmail version still looks the same, relax. These kind of “big ticket” changes take time to take effect globally. The rollout is on. If you are a Hotmail user say in India, for example, you may still be logging in to the old version but don’t be morose. Outlook will come to you, buddy.
 
I will not get into analysing the design changes here but one of the biggest changes, if you were to ask me, of Hotmail turning Outlook.com is that it has been made more Social Network friendly. Which means from a section inside the email called ‘People Hub’, you can tweet or post on your Facebook wall without logging out of Outlook.
 
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Which brings me then to the second topic of discussion: Networking, the social kind, has indeed turned into a very big phenomenon, online. Part of it is because of Facebook, some of it because of Twitter. There are at present, over 300 such community networks operating in the digital space, and I am talking only of the notable ones, with say about 5 million users+ each. Here are some of them: Google+, Chime.in, so.cl (Microsoft), Foursquare, Faceparty, Diaspora, Stumbleupon, Flickr, Plaxo....
 
Social networking sites have become communities, indeed worlds within themselves. Some are of a specific nature (like Flickr is for photo sharing) while others like Facebook are generic. 
 
And if you were to believe that with so many players in the game, some kind of saturation would have been reached by now in this space, think again. Every day, somewhere in the world, yet another social site is born. Which then brings us to the inevitable question – has social networking gone past the stage of being called a “bubble’? Has it become an irrevocable part of our real world lives? Or is it hype that will go bust soon.
 
Pessimists may point to the hammering of FB’s shares on a real world stock market to buttress their case. I, for now, hold no opinion.
 
But take this development last week, which is kind of related to the topic we are discussing here. Micro-blog Twitter may soon have competition by way of App.net. I use the word ‘may’ because the developer Dalton Caldwell says he is raising funds for the startup first. He wants $ 500,000 to start App.net. At the time of the writing of this column, he had already managed to get 2555 backers and $ 1,95,050 in funds. 
 
This method of raising funds is called crowdsourcing, where individual investors pitch in, from as small as $1 to ‘the sky is the limit’ amount for a startup.
 
Anyway, the thing about Dalton is that not only is he a well-known developer in Internet circles, he has raised a certain point involving Twitter, which is actually not only an issue concerning Twitter but a much larger one, I feel. 
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Not many know that till recently, Twitter did not have a revenue model despite it continuing to gain in popularity. It was only last year that it decided to look at revenue of sponsored tweets (advertising) as one of the means of generating revenue. This got the goat of David who said Twitter should have ensured the interests of developers and users first, not advertisers. So, to counter the “commercial-minded” Twitter, he decided to launch an ad-free App.net. 
 
Now, if by August 13, App.net does manage to raise $ 500,000, all of you out there may as well see the birth of an ad-free micro-blog.
 
But does Dalton have a point here? Or is he just being idealistic in today’s commercial world. Money, after all, is important for any business, leave alone a startup. So, if online advertising is not the way to go, what is? If any of you have an answer to that, write in.
 
 
 

Previous columns by Sorab Ghaswalla

Sorab Ghaswalla
Sorab Ghaswalla
Sorab Ghaswalla, is a journalist with near three decades of experience, and has worked in some well-known Indian and international print and television media organizations such as  The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times, The Indian Express, United News of India (UNI), The Gulf Today and India TV.
 
He has founded a Knowledge Services firm called New Age Content Services LLP, that leverages on the inherent strengths of the digital world. He also edits the website, www.whatsnewonthenet.com.
 
You can write to him at newagecontent@gmail.com
 
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