Just when I thought my Gmail was filtering out most of the spam from my inbox, just at that moment got snowed in with Facebook-Myspace-LinkedIn-Plaxo-Spock mails. And what is worse, none of it is spam according to traditional definitions. All those mails were initiated by people I more or less know. When digging a bit deeper into all those mail I found that at the start of each wave there's a relatively small group of geeks who want to link with me on this new platform. And I play that game willingly, because I too want to see what is being done with another load of venture capital.

But what about the average user, the 'real' user? How can they find out whether it's worth the effort of once again entering their personal data in what's supposed to be a secure database. I think I just may have found the key.

If we go back to the basic reason for existence of social networks (be it online of offline) we always find a common field of interest. Something people like to talk about, brag or exchange ideas. En enjoyable night out happens when you meet someone you connect with, someone who has similar interests. And in social networks this is not different. Hugh MacLeod calls these subjects of conversation "Social Objects", and claims social networks start from social objects and not the other way around. In essence he has a point, but like always reality is more complex.

Social networks are still in an early development stage. Everybody is busy exploring the boundaries of privacy rules, testing which features work and which don't and how to monetize these networks. The platforms that offer the most optimal mix of the above manage to gather enough critical mass to survive longer then a few months. So we're up against a few more years of platforms that grow based on their novelty, coolness and a big marketing budget. Once enough members join, the conversation starts automatically and real social network are born.

Knowing this, it's relatively simple to find an indicator when platforms transform into real social networks. The tipping point can be identified through the subjects of discussion. At the start the thing most talked about (the social object) is the platform itself. This is mainly because it's members are early adopters and geeks who kick on novelties. When conversations turn towards other subjects, that is the point where platforms step into a new phase and can start building a future.

Take a look at Facebook. It started of as the electronic version of an existing social network for students and was very successful. Today Facebook is op to the public and needs to put a lot more effort in features to keep the engine running. The biggest subject of conversation in tFacebook in Europe (where there is no student-base) is ... Facebook. MySpace on the other hand was first launched as a platform and the tipping point came when it was recognized as a way for fans to network around their favorite artist.

So when in doubt whether or not to join another social network, check the conversations. If you find something that interests you, you may have found a cool place to meet friends.

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