W(h)ither social networks? On the end of Pownce

This morning, I woke up to an email from Pownce that stated:

We are sad to announce that Pownce is shutting down on December 15,

In the rush of excitement around microblogs that followed Twitter and Jaiku, I signed up for an account on Pownce as well. I never really used it much, and that was because my network never really migrated there. I guess I posted to it sometimes through cross-posting from twhirl.

I had a few thoughts about the situation over breakfast and immediately Twittered them out:

Is social network attrition (Pownce) a natural consequence of the economy, the success of a few services, or user fatigue?

I had a number of responses to my brief question, many of which I agree with one way or the other. In fact, at least one Twitter contact responded in support of each of the three theses. Let’s drill in to each of the points, quickly:

  • Taking the success / take-off factor first, it is clear that the community never really took off at Pownce. In spite of the many problems that Twitter had around a year ago, the Fail Whale phenomenon has reduced. Google effectively killed off Jaiku as competition by not doing a thing with it, and alternatives such as identi.ca have really just foundered around. Although I have accounts on all of these services, I tend to use the one which I find most useful, accessible, and where my network lives – and right now, that’s the “big T”.
  • So the take-off factor depends on users, of course. It’s true that with a range of competing, “me-too” startups in any space, there’s an initial rush to try things out, but as people start to realise just how many things overlap, and how difficult it is for a community to port from one place to another en masse… fatigue tends to set in, and services fall out of use. Several friends commented “how many social networks do we need”? And on the data portability issue, although Pownce are letting users export their data, it does not export friends lists (which are key to the whole idea of a network) and the suggestion is that the data could be imported to a blogging platform like Vox or WordPress… er… not *quite* the same thing, folks!
  • Economically… well if you combine the first point above with the second point, no matter what the business model is, you are unlikely to have a steady revenue stream. In today’s economic climate, how do you keep going? Well, Twitter just seems to keep growing, but we hear that they have monetisation plans… I wouldn’t be surprised if lack of take-up + user fatigue –> lack of revenue and ultimate death for Pownce.

The BBC has a good piece by Bill Thompson on the recent rash of social network attrition, incidentally. Worth a look.

9 thoughts on “W(h)ither social networks? On the end of Pownce”

  1. Those are all great points. You brought it up only a little bit, but I wonder what will happen if Twitter would either a) decide to monetize in some way that upsets the users or b) faces the same sort of situation that Pownce has and closes its doors (I do think its probable, despite Twitter’s popularity) or maybe there’s c) gets bought up by some other service (like say Facebook) and gets turned into something crazy that everybody hates.

    What has been clearer to me is that Twitter will need to change in order to survive, and I wonder how that change will play out with those of us heavily invested in the service. I wasn’t upset when Pownce closed up shop, like you said there’s no network there for me, and I don’t even have an interest to save my “content” from that service either. But with Twitter that is a completely different situation.

    I think it’s interesting to think about what would happen if people felt they were forced to leave Twitter for any reason. Would they find another service? I know FriendFeed is popular in my circle of friends, but many of us use Twitter in addition to that because they’re not the same. Like you said the network is important, but I have a lot of time invested into Twitter with over 5,000 updates now. I would want to preserve that in some way. Pownce was gracious enough to offer a way for users to get their content “back” (so to speak), but would other services be so kind if they closed their doors?

    Excellent post Andy, there’s a lot to think about here!

  2. Andy, that’s an excellent and very fair point, thanks for the corrective statement.

    I’ve tried identi.ca but again, not that many people who I know are using it, and I find the twhirl support a bit weird (how come twhirl cross-posts to Twitter/Jaiku/Pownce but then has a separate window for identi.ca?) – so it’s about both accessibility and usefulness.

    I’m not trying to rubbish identi.ca and I think it plays a very valuable part in the ecosystem. I’ve not kept up with the developments over there… the point was a simple numbers game, Twitter continues to grow remarkably, whilst other services are not all gaining the same traction (or mainstream media coverage).

    The most ironic part about your comment is that you point out that I’ve not been “fully embracing” the service, and in the past week I’ve been encouraging other people to dive in and properly try things before deciding whether they are useful (another blog post in itself). In hindsight, I guess you’re right to say that I’m not in a position to meaningfully comment on some of these things.

    Heidi… I’d pay to be using Twitter at this point. And to be honest, that’s a scary thought!

  3. I think I agree with Andy C, identi.ca is open source, is it not? I have to imagine that it will have some sort of community following to keep it going. It’s probably not burdened by a lot of the problems Twitter is, or might be in the future.

    Here’s something else to consider Andy… you might pay for Twitter, but what if most of your network decides it’s not worth it? The strength of Twitter is in the network, and if your network is moving to another service (or on to the next great thing), would Twitter still be worth it for you? I may see it a little more abstractly, but I really think Twitter is in a delicate position right now. They have to monetize to survive, that’s pretty obvious, but the service is so incredibly simple, what do you monetize and how? The service is also hugely popular so they also have to consider the impact on their users. I think Twitter users have been fairly forgiving up until now, but in large part that is because the service is free…

  4. Agreed that the strength of a social network service IS in its network. Twitter is extremely strong and I have many friends there. Pownce was like a ghost town. But no matter how much I like Twitter — and I have over 8,000 tweets to prove I use it often — I probably would NOT pay to use it. Social networks are addictive. Paying to maintain an addiction is self-destructive.

  5. Sorry Andy if that came over a bit harsh. In fact, I am guilty of exactly that. Posting superficial, trite reviews of Web 2.0 services from just a days use.

    I used to evangelise about identi.ca and try to convert the whole world which is odd because I am really not an OpenSource type.

    Now I realise it’s not that important. People will love what they love. Each service (Twitter, rejaw, Pownce, Tumblr, identica etc will all have their advocates.

    However, I do think identica is different for two reasons:

    1) OpenSource – if they ever die, sell-out or choose to charge a subscription, I am perfectly free to install my own Laconica instance (and in fact have done).

    2) the committment to Open Micro Blogging.

    I don’t want a Twhirl client to cross-post to Twitter/identica. I want to be able to post and consume micro-blogging content from any service from the comfort of my blog dashboard. OMB potentially makes that possible. Twitter’s recent decision not to embrace OMB worries me.

    Heidi nails it though: ‘The strength of Twitter is in the network’. That, coupled with its pure simplicity.

    In fact, the biggest threat to Twitter is probably not even an alternative micro-blogging service but arrogance and complacency.

  6. […] An interesting year so far in terms of online services ending or merging. I don’t have a good enough memory to mention all of those that have vanished this year, but there are a number of notable examples I thought I’d highlight, mainly because I’ve used them in the past. I last did a short review of some of these consolidations about two years ago. […]

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