What is the value of the social web?

In my post "3 Ways..."  I mentioned the report that Facebook was driving more traffic to certain types of site than Google's search engine. This subsequently lead to a discussion in the comments on Buzz as to the relative values of social web services.

So, what is the value of social media?

Quite simply, it depends on who you are and what you hope to achieve from the social web. The value gleaned from a business perspective differs to that of a personal one and the number of varying personal perspectives in social media are as many - and as varied - as the number of people using the social web.

At the most basic of levels the value of the social web could be as simple as A, B, C, D, E: Attention, Broadcast, Connecting, Discovery, Engaging. I may expand on this at a later date.

If we are playing the pure numbers game then, for news and entertainment portals, it would appear Facebook creates the most value - perhaps it does for those sites simply after number of hits and ad impressions.

Usage patterns from service to service differ and the links being shared may not hold value for others. Many are saying, from a personal perspective, that Buzz (and FriendFeed before it) creates the most value due to the type of content being shared and, perhaps more importantly, the discussion that follows; the comments contribute much - perhaps sometimes all - of the value on offer.

Buzz is, however, still a niche product; it is growing but still stuck squarely in the realms of geekdom. We tend to gravitate towards services that fit our usage and interests.

Diff'rent strokes

Facebook is very generic with emphasis on fun, friends and family. While brands are making good use of the service it is still full of gossip, catching up with old friends and image sharing.

Twitter has completely transformed from its beginnings as a geek handout and now has no real target demographic. People get hung up on the purpose of Twitter but it is simply all about keeping up to date.

Google Buzz is different. As buzz incorporates our shares from Google Reader it is a natural move to migrate from one to the other for our news consumption relying on social sharing rather than direct feeds from sites or blogs. We move to automatically follow the same people we have already been subscribed to - an evolutionary shift rather than a revolution, it is therefore natural that we will gain most value from buzz as it immediately includes the kind of content that we are already consuming.

The problem here is that we become blinkered to other content or uses of the service. Adoption is much wider than we suspect but our social circle and interests determine that we generally have no need to discover what else is out there perfectly illustrating that our usage case, and consequently our perceived value, is different to just about everyone else.

The medium is not the message

Predictably, the social web was buzzing (pun intended) after Leo Laporte decided he was going to publicly slate Google Buzz and the rest of social media calling it "an immense waste of time". Paul Carr followed up with a post echoing some of Leos' points as a further explanation of why he quit all social sites except Twitter where he locked his account at 10000 followers.

An increasing number are calling social media vacuous where anything of substance is rarely posted or, if actually posted, never found again. Why should this be?

Horses for courses

Social media is transient; it is our ever flowing streams washing the mundane flotsam out to sea. As a result we can't hope for any permanence in the social sphere and must balance our online activities accordingly.

To achieve the best results we must use the tools that meet our needs and not just jump on the next shiny big thing and demand instant value. What works for others may not work for us and vice versa. Promoting something that is largely visual is obviously better suited to Facebook rather than Twitter; the need for conversation may be better suited by Buzz. Curating links to news is where Twitter comes in to its own. Common sense is very much the order of the day.

Social networks cannot be all things to all people and cannot even be all things to just us.

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