Much has been made in recent weeks regarding Facebook’s entry into the geo-location game, the heavyweight in the field entering a ring presently dominated by agile, well-supported upstarts like Foursquare and Gowalla. Social media pundits and aficionados are asking aloud, “Does the mere release of the Places platform signal the end of geo-competition yet in its infancy?” Early returns seem to indicate otherwise, as Foursquare, in particular, has reached significant milestones in the wake of the Facebook’s highly anticipated announcement. But are they safe? Is anyone truly safe in this arena? Observers need only glance askew, where once mighty MySpace sits alone, relegated to the sidelines and reduced to cloning parts of the competitors they once viewed as annoying wannabes, to wonder for themselves: Who or what could end Facebook’s reign as undisputed king of the social media mountain?
Bubbling beneath the surface, in various forms and degrees of release-readiness, lie a number of developing social networks who’ve set their aim squarely on the 900-pound gorilla in the room. From one perspective or another, they believe they have a different approach, an innovative solution to issues or concepts that Facebook either lacks or has consciously chosen to ignore. Do these teams of savvy coders and well-backed entrepreneurs have what it takes to even make a dent in a Facebook population that would rank among the world’s largest were it a sovereign nation? Will audiences respond in such a way that an anti-Facebook movement develops, leading to a mass migration ala MySpace circa 2007? These four startups certainly believe that they can.
Considering the inherent mission of a would-be Facebook killer, Diaspora has a particularly apt name. Whether you consider that they intend to use an open-source distribution model or that their ultimate success lies in the dispersionof the Facebook population in favor of their solution, these four NYU students have never lacked for ambition. Galvanized by the Facebook privacy debacle earlier this year, the team behind Diaspora set out to create a “personal web service that will put individuals in control of their data”. They gave themselves less than 40 days to raise the $10,000 necessary for the four of them to live on while they dedicated themselves and their summer to the project. Apparently, a chord was struck, as they raised ten times that amount in the allotted time. Somewhat curiously, even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was among the contributors. Recently, it was announced that the code would be revealed to other programmers on September 15th, with a “consumer facing alpha” expected in October.
While the Diaspora team may boast the most romantic origin story, they’re certainly not the only players in the game. Google head Eric Schmidt’s personal VC firm has invested in a group called Trumpet Technologies, who, in addition to specializing in “mobile local search”, have charged two college students with designing a network they’re calling “Scoop”. While Diaspora seems to be all about privacy and control, Scoop aims to be the go-to source for the “wheres” and “hows”, providing up-to-the-minute info for the hyper-social set, hoping to find a niche as a service primarily accessed via mobile app on increasingly prevalent smartphones. They’re also taking a page from the Facebook playbook, reaching into the social giant’s past as an exclusively college-based enterprise. This sentiment becomes a recurring theme.
Farther along in the development cycle is Collegiate Nation, currently accepting signups to its launched beta. Born out of a mother’s outrage at her university-aged sons’ unwitting offerings of the private information that has fueled Facebook’s skyrocketing valuation, Collegiate Nation isn’t designed as a Facebook alternative, but as a staunch anti-Facebook community. It is college-only, as the name vaguely suggests, like many nascent networks who see opportunity in the fertile environment that served as their target’s incubator. While free during this phase of the launch, it plans to charge a nominal subscription as not to be beholden to ad networks. And privacy is paramount. The sign-up form even includes the caveat that non-students who have .edu addresses are committing fraud if they sign up for the service. If only they were as concerned with the appearance as they are about the sanctity of their network. Time will tell if traditionally poor college students will pay a premium for a site that looks anything but.
The final entry in our survey takes a much more… suggestive… approach to the university-only, “walled garden” approach. College Only, with beta launches at seven schools in time for this fall semester, is the culmination of one NY entrepreneur’s serial attempts to recreate social media phenomena with a student focus. Combine the features of GoodCrush, a collegiate-oriented Match.com, and RandomDorm, a student-only Chatroulette, with a little Facebook circa 2005 and you have the gist of CollegeOnly. A quick perusal of the media kit reveals that this is as far from a concerned mother’s creation as possible, calling itself the place where “student bodies connect”. With the opportunity to post anonymously, as well as the promise of only light moderation, CollegeOnly may find its audience, but it may also find itself with the same privacy issues that once plagued Facebook, campus-exclusive or not.
While similar in goal if not execution, none of these would-be Facebook killers solves the perceived problem in the same manner. And while that’s a good thing for surveys such as this, the ultimate question of which approach most closely reflects the desires of the marketplace, especially a fickle one like the 18-24 set, will play out over the next few years. In terms of scope (and no longer being an undergrad), I’ll be keeping my eye on Diaspora. Just remember, MySpace was once the king of the social media jungle and while it lacked Facebook’s vision (or luck), it never made the type of mistakes that Facebook has over the past year or so. You have to believe an empire of a half billion users can fall.
The question is: Do any of these new networks have what it takes to be the next Facebook?
As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments, leave them below or email me @ Thomas AT FeedbackAgency DOT com.
- Thomas (@thomasmcdonald)