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Weekly Column

Antisocial: Social Networking is Just Another CB Radio

Status: [CLOSED] comments (94)
By Robert X. Cringely

Do you remember Citizens' Band radio? Though established by the Federal Communications Commission in the 1950s, CB radio didn't become an overnight sensation until the 1970s when Moore's Law brought down the cost of radios to where it was economically viable to buy them solely for the purpose of breaking speed-limit laws. President Nixon, who liked to wear a blue suit and keep a cozy fire burning in his White House hearth year round no matter what the outside temperature or impact on his (our) air conditioning bill, had decided we all should drive 55 miles per hour or less to save fuel following the energy crisis of 1973. So, being true Americans, which is to say cranky and prone to complain, we en masse set out to break this new law using as our primary tool CB radio technology to warn us where Smokey was or had recently been or whether there was an eye in the sky. Criminals bound by a criminal code, we flaunted CB license restrictions (you were supposed to use your Federally assigned call sign from that license you were also supposed to have but never got) and operated under handles like "Thunderchicken" and "Boot-licker." I was "asciiboy." CB radio sales went from zero to tens of millions of units in under two years -- the highest rate of technology adoption ever seen in the U.S. before or since. Soon there was CB lore and a CB culture. CB was everywhere. When not breaking the law with it we were using CB as a huge social network to find the cheapest gas, the best hamburger or even a date for the prom. And then, quick as it started, CB was gone, worn to the bone from overuse and abuse and left to the truckers as it should have been all along. What killed CB radio was that moment when its annoyance factor exceeded its utility -- a utility already driven down by low traffic conviction rates and the eventual understanding that if everyone were a speeder then most cops wouldn't stop anyone.

I am beginning to think that Internet social networking is another CB radio, destined to crash and burn.

Social networking has a lot of problems as both a business and a cultural phenomenon. To start with there is generally no true business model. This can vary a bit from application to application but most are vying simply for eyeballs and hoping for Google ads to pay the bills until Time Warner or News Corp make them an acquisition offer they can't refuse. That might be okay for Facebook or MySpace and maybe Linked-In, but there are more than 350 general-purpose social networks out there and I will guarantee you that no more than 5 percent of those will be still operating two years from today.

If you are a social networking entrepreneur and your operation isn't among the top 10, I'd be either looking frantically for an acquirer or turning your site into a social networking aggregator, linking to many others in exactly the way the chat networks appear to be merging while still retaining their individual identities.

Then there is the annoyance factor, which for me is rapidly accelerating as the major social networks try to establish themselves as hosts for third-party applications. This would appear to be a no-brainer tactic for the two or three social networks that are likely to survive. In fact I could argue that what is more likely to survive than most social networks are the truly compelling applications that run upon them, eventually subsuming their hosts. But in the meantime there is all this annoying crap. How many groups do you have to join, how many causes do you have to support, how many silly applications do you have to run until you come to realize that you are being included TO DEATH?

My idea for the perfect Facebook app, for example, is one I call "I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up!" It's a variation on Twitter that is activated ONLY when one participant needs other participants to call 9-1-1 on his or her behalf. Maybe it could be linked to a panic button or to your cardiac pacemaker. The perfect Facebook application, then, is one you hope you'll never have to use. This is far better than the typical Facebook app, which is overused to the point where people withdraw or simply stop noticing.

It's not that I don't see value to social networks, it's that I generally don't see ENOUGH value. Yes, keeping my address book synchronized with reality is nice, but isn't that likely to be shortly absorbed into the operating system or perhaps into networked applications like Gmail and Yahoo Mail?

This trend has happened over and over as hundreds of portals came and went, leaving a few survivors. Same for hundreds of search engines, hundreds of free e-mail services, etc., etc.

Marshall McLuhan argued that obsolete communication technologies survive as art forms. This is true, I'd say, for Morse code and movable type printing and perhaps even for your venerable Rolodex or typewriter. But it isn't yet true for CB radio, nor for most Internet technologies. Maybe they aren't old enough yet to be appreciated. In the case of CB I think range of reception limits the possible population of players to something less than an artistic critical mass.

What will likely happen to social networking is that some applications will survive on a more modest basis than now (used by the trucker equivalents), others will morph into some new Next Big Thing as their more compelling sub-applications take over, and true hard-core social networkers will jump to more advanced technologies that eliminate the riff-raff. In the meantime, 70 percent or so of most social networking functionality -- the really useful functionality -- will be sucked into the dominant portal/search/e-mail/chat/social networks like MSN and Yahoo.

This next transition will happen faster than most people realize. Part of this is because Internet product cycles have been shortening for the past several years, so each generation is shorter than the one before. This hasn't mattered much because the audience has continued to expand. And even now as Internet growth in terms of new users is slowing, that's more than made up for by the shift of advertising budgets from print and broadcast to the net. So while the growth in users is decreasing, the growth in total revenue PER user is increasing. But so is the competition, hence the shorter product cycles.

The tip-off that we're nearing the end of a cycle is the flight to quality we're seeing from some of the bigger players. At Facebook, for example, you can no longer register using an e-mail address from an anonymous mail site like Mailinator, Operamail, or Countermail. Facebook demands that you take an extra three minutes and get a Yahoo Mail or AOL mail address for example. This is clearly the company pruning its subscribers in anticipation of an acquisition in the next couple quarters. There is no other reason to do it. MySpace isn't doing it despite a very real sex offender scandal, but then MySpace has already been sold and Facebook hasn't yet.

Once Facebook has been taken and one or two others, the golden era of social networking acquisitions will be over and the entrepreneurs will be headed for that Next Big Thing.

"Breaker Port 80! Do you have your ears on?"

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (94)

OK - I admit. I come from the era of CB radios and remember sitting in my friends house with their CB radio in the kitchen and listening to all the chatter about who just got in what tractor accident and who got picked up for drunk driving! Those were the days for sure! With social networking, I have decided long ago that I have no interest in Facebook and MySpace, but instead, keep it strictly to business networking with Linked In. I cannot tell you how many emails I get on a daily basis with invites to (e.g.) "join whiz, the new very best business networking website and keep in contact with all your friends and business associates". This has become such a huge pet peeve as I have no interest in some silly start up with no business plan. Linked In is the best and only site I use and I love the fact that they keep most of the personal sillies out of it. I have to hand it to them - a very professional, easy to use site.


Christine Corden | Mar 14, 2008 | 3:34PM

"flaunted" CB license restrictions? Wow, you must've been pulling an all-nighter to get this one out.

flaunted = to display ostentatiously. You "flaunt" wealth, you "flout" the law.

Bruce | Mar 19, 2008 | 1:17PM

nice post | Mar 20, 2008 | 4:43AM