last week Apple continued their ascendancy with the unveiling of a revamped iPod range, but also with Ping; a social network, housed within iTunes, based – not surprisingly – in and around music. so a small step for iTunes but a giant leap for Apple into the social networking space.
they're not the first. back in July 2008 I wrote a post in response to news that MTV was launching a social networking initiative called House. I expressed concern then, that brands sailing into social waters did so at significant risk… there's simply only so many networks people can and will be part of…
at the time I ranked a very un-statistically robust sample of social network membership and (unsurprisingly) a long tail emerged… whilst a small minority of sites (Facebook, MySpace) account for the vast majority of social networkers, there is the potential for a network to aggregate a strong and viable community around a niche topic or area. but therein lies the rub… if you're stuck in the tail then running a social network could be an expensive way to aggregate and entertain a niche audience.
but back to Ping, and as niche's go, it got to be said that if you're going to go after a vertical then music seems to be a fair vertical to choose; especially when you have one of the biggest and most significant music ecommerce platforms in existence, and MySpace – you're most significant rival with specific music credibility – is struggling to demonstrate a place for itself in the world.
but Ping is a somewhat limited experience. on first use it feels like a twitter engine (you follow and are followed) with a Facebook framework. but that's where the similarity ends and the problems start; the only way to connect with people is to invite them by email, and once you are connected there's no inter-network connectivity. what goes on Ping, stays on Ping.
contrast this with Fabulis, the social network set up for gay men and the friends of gay men set up by Jason Goldberg (below) earlier this year. fabulis.com aims to help gay men and their friends discover where to go, what to do, and who to meet.
two things struck me about fabulis. one is how the site has an explicit 'currency' in the form of bits – points that you earn or win by interacting and engaging with the site and other social networkers. for the record my meager 815 points currently rank me at 4,181st, so I've a bit of engaging to do (but then that's very much the point of points isn't it).
but the second and most interesting aspect of fabulis is how I never actually joined the social network. I never registered a username or created a password. nor did I upload a profile picture or suggest friends. Facebook Connect did all of that, and moreover, fabulis was more than happy for Facebook to do it. my sign-in, profile, and network were all ported happily and seamlessly across from Facebook. Compare and contrast this with Ping's approach.
the fundamental difference between the networks is that Ping is insular and closed (and that's very much Apple's prerogative and indeed modus operandi) whereas fabulis is not only open in it's approach, but dependent on another network – namely Facebook – for a key element of its infrastructure. if Facebook went down one day (run with this!) then fabulis would go down with it; it's a network built on a network, and its very much the better for it.
all of which makes Jobs' position on why Ping isn't connected into Facebook's (or another social network's) content very revealing… in a post on cnet news, Kara Swisher describes how when she asked Jobs about the lack of connectivity on Ping, "he said Apple had indeed held talks with Facebook about a variety of unspecified partnerships related to Ping, but the discussions had gone nowhere … the reason, according to Jobs: Facebook wanted "onerous terms that we could not agree to""
Ping was a pretty unique opportunity for Apple to open it's doors and integrate part of its product into the wider web in a way that would ultimately have made Ping better for its users. the fact that Jobs didn't says more about Apple than it does about Facebook's apparent 'onerous' terms. it seems that Facebook's terms weren't too onerous for Goldberg, and fabulis is, well, pretty fabulis as a result.