Online social networks as a dominant medium for ideas, relationships and communication is not a fad. Online communities not based on something substantial in the offline world are a fad or rather were the easiest types of networks to get up and running. Today’s leading social networks from Facebook to linkedin to eharmony and other niche communities thrive because they are based on meaningful relationships/structures in the offline world – workplace, school, dating, religion, community activity, teams The social networks in decline or already gone have been based on virtual or entertainment only connections between members – music group fans, gossip, breaking news, Internet memes, pro sports, etc.
The online networks based on offline structures benefit greatly from built in relationships, hierarchies, and connected behaviors. It is much easier to invent functions and services based on well established behaviors and objectives. Additionally the offline structures mentioned above are more important to people in their daily lives than purely virtual communities. This deeper importance leads to better engagement and commitment to the online counterpart of that institution. E.g. Few users maintain a sloppy or misleading linked in or Facebook profile (this isn’t constrained to any age group either). As the online and offline components become more intertwined activity in either becomes reinforcing.
The downside of building an online community based on something offline is that can take considerable resources to get it right and achieve critical mass, the user must do more to get the value – fill out a profile, be real, have substance in interactions, be interesting offline etc.
There are other reasons virtual only communities suffer… Because the interactions have few offline consequences the interactions quickly grow out of sync with offline norms and values. The more out of sync they get the harder it is for their to be lasting connectedness between larger and larger groups of members. The network fractures and often gets too abnormal for mass consumption.
I am definitely making the claim that celebrity worship, loving the same bands, seeing the same movies, disliking the same athletes, being simply in a similar career are not strong enough connections to build a social network around. Shared offline experiences is the basis of long lasting online communities. Last I checked humans still lived, ate, made babies, earned money and died in the real world. And the things most essential to doing those activities are what were all going to post, blog, take pictures, comment and like.
As an aside to those working in the internet biz…. Not all unique users are created equal. Very quickly this industry will have a metric system based on unique people with real names interacting in your system. Of course publishers, networks, media companies will always attempt to shroud those numbers in mystery, but it’s getting harder and harder to hide how many real people use a system. Once the industry makes this shift the offline connectedness becomes more essential.