Will Social Network Sites Exist 5 Years From Now?

Social networking sites are increasingly becoming a center of activity on the web. MySpace and Facebook have become the modern day portals. Last week, Sarah Perez suggested that social networks will soon become the next iTunes in that they will become the center of media distribution. Back in November I suggested that social networks will become the new T.V.

Ultimately Sarah and I are both saying the same thing. The real question I have though is will these sites continue to exist 5 years from now? If these sites fail to exist 5 years from now, how can they be the new television? Ultimately there are only a few components that are used heavily on social networks: user profiles, friend lists and search. More recently there is the addition of newsfeeds as well.

When I began to write this article, my initial argument was that all of these features can be theoretically abstracted and don’t need to exist within a the traditional sense of a “social network site.” Charlene Li has been saying the same thing for the past few months and while listening to a podcast last night on the future of social networks, pre-recorded at last year’s AlwaysOn Stanford Summit, many of the panelists seemed to agree. Last week I stopped writing this post halfway through though because I began to wonder if this argument is accurate.

Could social networks really be totally abstracted? Would Facebook, which is this generation’s phonebook, really be abstracted to the point where other people create other directories based on their social graph? Twitter already provides complete open access and with the addition of friend grouping features you have a completely open social graph. Somebody is bound to do it, but then again the site that decides to open will need to already have a significant portion of the worldwide social graph.

While this could happen, it will require the average joe to understand the implications of entering all their personal data into this massive (and open) database. Otherwise, I don’t see a reason for the average Facebook user or MySpace user to go recreate their highly complex networks on another site. While I believe openness should and will win, I’m not quite sure how this will take place. Many will point to Friendster and say that users then were willing to easily leave the site.

My argument for those individuals is that the users had not completely entered their entire network. For highly connected individuals, it is extremely difficult to move all of that information to another site. Then again, I use Salesforce.com to manage all my contacts and they provide an export feature. With a little bit of effort my social graph could become portable.

Every time I think about it though, I come back to the same question: would the average Joe understand and do this? Do you think this is destined to happen? Will social networks become just like air and totally transparent? Perhaps there will be two classes of people, those with completely portable social graphs and those that stay locked-in to one site. What do you think?