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Is the appeal of social networking fading?

26 March, 2008
By Allison Orr

This week Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has become the world’s youngest billionaire, according to Forbes magazine.  The 23 year old, who started the website to keep in touch with friends at Harvard University, is now worth an estimated US$1.5 billion.

However, there are still some who are asking, are social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace just a fad?  Facebook has 67 million regular users, and MySpace has slightly more with 68 million, but that number is down from 72 million.  Growth in new members is slowing.

It also seems that the demographics of users are changing.  Once a domain primarily for young people, social networking sites are now becoming popular for older audiences.  The change is particularly evident on Facebook, which first started as a networking tool for university students only.  In 2006 it was opened up to the general public, much to the dismay of original users, and now the fastest growing segment of Facebook’s users are people 25 and older.   Some young Facebook users are unhappy to discover their parents "friending" them and following their lives via their online networks.  There are now even Facebook groups devoted to complaining about parents invading the online world.

There are also signs that the format is becoming old and the novelty wearing off.  Many users are getting sick of the incessant pop-ups and banner ads, friend requests and constant invitations to play games and join quirky groups. Many users moved from MySpace to Facebook to avoid the ads, but now find the situation similar.

All these changes are causing consternation among long-term users who continue to expect to be able to use Facebook and Myspace as networking tools only, without the add-ons and the hype.

Mark Zuckerberg’s remarkable fortune is based on the capacity of Facebook to continue to grow and to attract advertising to the site.  However, it’s questionable whether the format is sustainable.  According to a January report in Business Week, social networks have some of the lowest response rates to advertising on the Net, with as few as 4 in 10,000 people clicking on ads.  It remains to be seen whether social networking, one of the quintessential Web 2.0 tools, will sustain its popularity over time.

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