In the past few years, there have been a cornucopia of online social-networking services. Services like Friendster, LinkedIn, and their clones. Friendster has millions of members, and until now, has no revenue other than its recent introduction of Google ads. LinkedIn, a slight variant of Friendster—you add people you know professionally rather than casual friends— had plans to charge people for successful contact request. This phenomenon of virtual social networks that have "lots of members but no revenue" puzzled quite a bit of technologists.
Sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina has propounded an interesting theory (interesting to non-sociologists, and those who work on the Internet) about social networks, or rather socio-material networks. The theory is that most 'social networks' thrive because of shared objects. Thus object-centered sociality.
How about 'blogs? Blogs are slightly different—because blogs intuitively have 'objects/materials' linking people in the social network. Most blogs today, link to others of similar interests, for instance, blogs of faithful Catholics. Heck, even in the physical world, there are always a common object/topic of interest that bind the members of the a self-organizing community together. It seems only in the virtual world it is easy to pull together a venture that lacks this essential ingredient for a sustainable business. Only sometimes this concept is intuitively grasped by developers.
My company is soon to release a service that might have a slight social-networking bent. Basically, most online services out there that require/benefit from network saturation, are a variant of social-networking service. The fact that some social networking services are more 'successful' than others is a challenge for a lot of optimistic, entrepreneurial people in the Internet industry. So there's this wonderful technology at hand. How do we make people see how wonderful it is and use it? Every once in a while, somebody comes up with what seems to be a brilliant idea, launches the product, and it falls flat. And the same idea, some time later, is picked up by another, who says, "Gee, why don't I use this for X?" and voila! s/he becomes the next EBay.
A common, almost cliched, advice that my colleague and I often get from mentors and potential investors is that, any product/service to be launched must "add value." People find this value almost uniquely from person to person in the various services.
For the 36th WORLD COMMUNICATIONS DAY (2002), the late pope JPII wrote about the Internet as a "New Forum for Proclaiming the Gospel". It has begun, I think, with the emergence of the laity taking upon themselves the task of proclaiming the Gospel by defending the teachings of the Church. Those who are seeking better catechesis have a starting point, from articles and books referred to by the faithful.
So the questions that my company face now are: What value(s) (other than economic) does our service seek to bring forth? Can we help foster Christian-based values? Threat-wise, one of the most profitable businesses on the 'net is porn, and one day, we will have to face this test.