Right now the world is focused on stand-alone social networking sites, especially Facebook and MySpace, and the fad of the moment is to take brands and services there, as companies build Facebook apps and MySpace pages in a bid to follow the audience wherever they happen to be. But at the same time there's a growing sense that elements of social networking is something all good sites should have, not just dedicated social networks. And that suggests a very different strategy--social networking as a feature, not a destination.
So far, so good - but Chris Anderson's day job is at Wired, which is definitely a destination site with a huge audience. Cultural heritage sites are useful for a range of people, but I suspect most people stumble across our content incidentally, through search engines and external links - they don't think "I'll spend my lunch break browsing the Museum of Whatever's website".
But another of his projects is much smaller so the issues are more relevant to the cultural heritage sector:
So we've been debating internally whether we want to shift to a distributed functionality strategy (AKA "go where the people are"), where most users interact with us via a widget on third party sites, clicking through to our site only when they want to go deeper. We're embarking on some experiments with a few partners we like to see how that goes. Hopefully a distributed strategy will help us reach critical mass as a destination, too, but right now we're simply experimenting to see what works.
I think focused sites that serve niche communities will extract the best lessons from Facebook and MySpace and offer better social networking tools to the communities they already have. I'm sure huge and generic social networking destinations will continue to do well, but I'm placing my bet on the biggest impact coming when social networking becomes a standard feature on all good sites, bringing community to the granular level where it always works best.
So how would this work for us? Would our visitors gather around specific institutions, around institutional collections, around meta-collections that span several institutions, or around the sector as a whole? Would they, for example, gather around a site like Exploring 20th Century London, which has a very specific temporal and regional focus? Or are these potential users already on sites that meet their needs, at least to some extent? Our collections will inevitably still form a valuable resource for discussion, no matter where that discussion takes place.
Who knows? I think it'll be fun finding out.
I keep meaning to post about Ning. As the post above says, "Ning is not a destination itself--instead, it provides hosted social networking tools for niche sites to create their own destinations."
It could be a useful tool for smaller organisations who want to get into social software but don't have the means to build their hosts or applications, or for small ad hoc team working.