Social Web Aggregation – The Next Killer App, Part 1

508664515_853780cf3a Remember the good old days? Back when you had to log on to one email system at work and then at night dial up your favorite BBS’s one by one, replying to all of your emails while you were logged in? (I’m showing my age – if you don’t actually remember that – just use your imagination)

But then along came the internet and the idea of a universal email client — one application from which you could handle all your email across multiple servers. And you didn’t even have to be online to read and reply to email — you could do it at your convenience.

Remember Usenet? The same thing happened there. You used to have read in real-time while logged in, but before long came aggregators that allowed you to subscribe to the content you wanted and read it at your leisure. Eventually Google pretty much took it over and turned it into Google Groups.

AOL became the largest ISP at one time not just because they spent millions on marketing, but because they offered a simple, unified interface to the internet, accessible to the typical user.

As the web grew, it became apparent that it was far too complex to simply navigate via hyperlinks from one site to another. There needed to be a centralized directory of web sites. A couple of smart people realized that they could monetize that and Yahoo! was born.

While no one might ever have imagined it was possible, the web became so complex that it outran the capacity of a topical directory, and along came search engines to fill the gap. Was Google really THAT much better a search engine than all the others? Or did the "I feel lucky" button that promised one-click satisfaction have something to do with their success?

Some of the web’s biggest brands have been built around a fairly simple aggregation concept:

  • Amazon provides access to the pretty much the entire library of published books (and more, now, of course).
  • eBay aggregates individual buyers and sellers.
  • craigslist aggregates all types of classifieds, not just buy/sell.

And now the web is social. OK, it’s always been social, but now it’s mostly social. According to Comscore, "The number of worldwide visitors to social networking sites has grown 34 percent in the past year to 530 million, representing approximately 2 out of every 3 Internet users." In some countries, such as the UK, social networking sites account for more than 75% of all web traffic.

So where’s the super-aggregator for the social web?

Facebook wants to be it. So does MySpace. Google too. A host of startups are aggregating social networking profiles, online video and more – even multiple Twitter and Jaiku accounts.

Users are starving for this, even if many of them don’t realize it yet. As more and more social networks pop up, particularly those with niche focus, the space becomes increasingly fragmented. A new social network focused on one particular topic no longer competes with just other social networks on the same topic, but with all social networks vying for the user’s attention. And as anyone who’s ever studied GTD or any other productivity methodology knows, fragmented attention is counter-productive.

The inevitable trend is that unless social networking sites make it easier to aggregate their data, they’re going to lose their most active users to social network burnout (it’s already started). A widely-adopted, highly effective aggregation tool could stave off that trend and put the social web back on course to being an indispensable productivity tool, rather than a waste of time and a security risk.

It’s clear from the internet’s evolutionary past that whoever can figure out how to make a simple, unified interface to the social web is well-positioned to make a ton of money. But they’re going to face some significant challenges, and the technology is just one of them. I’ll address those in Part 2.

Image: Aldo Gonzales via Flickr