The Power Users Are Revolting

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Digg, which in its heyday was effectively run by its power users, is dying. Wikitravel is probably joining it: two-thirds of its admins want to jump ship to the greener grass of the Wikimedia Foundation. Who in turn have their own people problems–a stubborn gender gap and a diminishing number of active admins. Meanwhile, across the Web, people are asking “Is StackOverflow being ruined by its moderators?”

There’s a common thread here. Site starts up; site scales; a power-law minority of its users become its key community, and if/when that community withers, the entire site is endangered. The examples above are edge cases who explicitly assign admin rights to unpaid users, or take the power law to its extreme. But they indicate a larger point.

Like it or not, we live in the Age of Social Media, and the wars for dominance have begun. Facebook bought Instagram as a defensive move. They’re clearly in Google’s sights–and before you laugh, bear in mind that Google+ traffic is apparently up 43% since December and now surpasses LinkedIn’s. Path is gunning for Facebook too, whether they admit it or not. App.net just set its sights on Twitter. Meanwhile, Reddit is rampant, Pinterest just erupted out of nowhere, and Quora continues to underachieve.

But how do you conquer an enemy social network?

Not with features alone. A nifty new feature like Google+’s Hangouts can and will get people to your site, but it won’t keep them there. Users will only stay if they find a community there, whether it’s public like Quora, semi-public like Twitter, semi-private like Facebook, or private like Path. Once established, a community doesn’t move until its members move, and its members won’t move until their community moves. That’s a nice catch-22, and a mighty big moat.

But not an insurmountable one. New modes of communication can and will open space for newcomers: for instance, mobile is the chink in Facebook’s armor that Path hopes to exploit. And there seems to be space in most lives for several different online communities. If you can get people to adopt your site as their second or third online home, and keep them coming back, and get more and more of their cohort to do the same–there comes a tipping point at which the community has effectively moved, and you’ve won the battle.

But how do you get them to make your site their second- or third-choice destination in the first place? I suspect the answer is to go after the power users, the ones with the most influence or the most followers. George Takei, Robert Scoble, Lady Gaga. Reward them somehow for making your network their primary outlet. Maybe even with cold hard money. App.net wants its users to pay to be customers, but alas, I think most people would rather remain product for free. I suspect it’s more effective to offer a chunk of your advertising income to your most popular power users. YouTube does that already: and I bet that as the social wars intensify, others will adopt that model too.

Not that I’m all that excited about this. I share with Dalton Caldwell the dark suspicion that the relentless spread of monetization means that average users will ultimately be the losers of the social wars, and eventually we’ll be reminiscing about these good old days. But let’s hope I’m wrong.