Don't build a social network

Don't build a social networkNick explains why building a social network is probably not going to be a good idea…

We’ve had several people ask us to create sites which, when you put it all together, amount to a social network. While we consider each brief, so far we haven’t found a good business case for building one.

Why do they fail?

Even if you built an amazing system that was significantly better than the competition there are two simple reasons why you are likely to fail:

  1. Lack of critical mass (you just don’t have enough people to make it work).
  2. Attrition (people like where they are).

It’s mostly about psychology and first-mover advantage. Take Google+ for example, it works well – perhaps even better than Facebook – yet despite claiming ‘400 million users’ it isn’t a patch on Facebook, few people have heard of it, and users aren’t particularly active.

Why? Well, while people deride Facebook (privacy issues, interface changes, Timeline, etc), the fact is that they are there already and so are their friends. Even if you build a better interface, the lack of friends is problematic for users.

Certainly to say that Google+ has failed may be premature, but aside from Orkut (Google’s Latin American social network) Google Wave and Buzz, both partly social, haven’t been successes. Facebook remains king.

So why do others succeed?

Well the simple (and it is overly-simple) answer is that they do something different and they do it well, really well.

Twitter and Facebook may seem to converge but they are fundamentally different and hence have different purposes, different friends and reasons to engage. That symbiosis meant there wasn’t a need to choose one network over the other. People use both and post different things to each. Although of course Facebook posts to Twitter and vice-versa.

Pinterest became the current ‘hot ticket’ by recognising that the visual beauty of the web wasn’t yet expressed in a simple friendly way, especially the kind that appeals to the ‘mood-board’ crew (those of us fancying ourselves as designers or creatives). Additionally you can sign up to it via your Twitter or Facebook account and it integrates neatly into those. In fact you’re more likely to see what a friend is doing on Pinterest from Facebook than from Pinterest itself.

And why not build your own social network?

There are several good reasons to run a mile from building your own social network:

  1. It is costly to build. Even if you use an ‘out of the box’ solution like Ning it is hard to make the money back.
  2. For every 100 active users you need about 5 times that in members, eg. 500 users for 100 active people.
  3. You can do it within an existing social network (ideally more than one), eg. with a Group/Page/etc.
  4. Do you really like dealing with Privacy, Moderation and learning about hosting, bandwidth, content delivery networks…?
  5. You’ll need more money to advertise it, and we do mean lots of money – that’s why big networks have Venture Capitalist help.
  6. If you’re still thinking it’s a good idea, get in touch and we’ll expand this list by another 5 (unless it really is a gem).

And Finally

Even if you have a half-good idea it might also fail. Take Apple’s Ping; we would say RIP but you were really just a marketing exercise and didn’t offer anything new over what you could get on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter (and Pinterest, FourSquare… ).


  1. Trevor says

    Interesting and useful article. I agree with your two simple main points about why trying to build a social network will fail. Hopefully you’ll save a few more people a lot of time, effort and money.

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