Prasad Rao, 20, is a Delhi University student in the second year of his BA (Hons) programme. For his birthday in November, his father gifted him an iPhone 4. He used to be a regular Facebook user, logging in at least four or five times a day to keep up with his friends. The phone was best put to use by sharing pictures with his friends, on Facebook. But now, Rao mostly uses Instagram, a photo-sharing network for iPhone users.
He says: “Many of my friends also have iPhones and we’ve all got Instagram. Now, you can take pictures and then apply these really cool filters, so the pictures look really amazing. When one of my friends uploads a picture, it updates on my phone and I can see it right away.”
Facebook is expected to have a billion accounts in 2012, Twitter is estimated to be half that size, but it is unclear how many users are actually active. While the size of these networks means that they won’t disappear overnight, analysts say the growth of both is beginning to slow down.
New York-based social media analyst and independent media management consultant Jason Koetz says the reason a newcomer such as Instagram was able to add two million users in November (to reach 12 million users) is because it allows people to tell a story in a unique way. He says: “It allows people to tell stories visually, with simplicity and immediacy. It’s a mobile-first platform, unlike Facebook, and meets those expectations. It is an elegant solution that makes people feel like artists.”
Smaller, interest-focused networks, such as Pinterest, SoundCloud and Fab.com, are also gaining popularity. It’s not likely that any of these will replace the bigger networks, since they don’t offer the same scope as, say, Facebook, which in September announced that it had reached 800 million users. However, the new networks actually benefit from Facebook and Twitter, integrating their services into the existing networks.
Pradeep Chopra, CEO of Digital Vidya, a social media training company that works with firms to help them develop and implement their social strategies, explains: “A network like Facebook is enormously powerful because of the number of people connected to it. In comparison, a niche network such as Instagram can’t compare. But uploads to Instagram also share the feed on Facebook and Twitter, so you’re not just getting one set of connections, you’re getting three. This rub-off effect adds a lot of value to networks such as Instagram or Pinterest.”
Yashraj Vakil, COO of online marketing agency Red Digital, says: “Reaching out to people on Facebook gets big numbers, but it’s cluttered. Facebook is everywhere, but new networks like Pinterest allow specialized messaging.”
Instagram (12 million members as of November)
Instagram, which launched in October 2010, has been a big success thanks to mobile phones. The problem with networks such as Flickr or Facebook photos used to be that after taking a picture, you had to go to your computer to make even the most basic fixes before you shared the image. Instagram takes advantage of the iPhone to give users a tool which allows them to take photos, do some fun image editing, and then share it with all their Instagram followers, as well as on Facebook and Twitter, and even email lists. The ease and convenience of Instagram gave it an immediate advantage over other networks. Like Twitter, it’s an open network—you don’t need to know someone to follow them, and they don’t need to follow you back. For many artists, this is a great way to show their work to a large audience, and get immediate feedback.
Fab.com (350,000 members as of June)
Fab.com is a members-only network for daily deals on fashion that began life as a gay network. When the company changed direction in March, founder Jason Goldberg noted in his blog, “Gay rights progress over the past year had a positive impact on the gay community but a negative impact on the demand for our services.
“Design is a lifestyle, and it’s social,” he wrote. “People love sharing great designs!” Part of that is Fab’s Moodboard, a Pinterest-style image wall where members can share pictures of designs they liked/created. And all this ties back to deals.
Pinterest (4.9 million members as of December)
This category-based photo-sharing site allows users to share ideas easily and collaborate on projects through pictures. You “pin” photos in collages that anyone can comment on or re-pin to new collages to build ideabooks.
Launched quietly in March 2010, the site is so popular that there’s a waiting list to join.
The categorization and re-pin features make it easy to collate ideas into a digital scrapbook. You could make, for example, a recipe book on your computer, and then access it on your phone in the kitchen, or put together design ideas to take when you go shopping for furniture. Anyone can add to a pinboard, so collaborating on a project is easy too.
SoundCloud (5 million members as of June)
SoundCloud launched in October 2008, but remained small and virtually unknown until 2011. Last year, the site announced that it had added four million users, reaching five million members. SoundCloud, much like Instagram, has benefited from the growing ubiquity of smartphones—similar services had existed, but thanks to good timing, SoundCloud was there to take advantage of the huge number of mobile users who had in their hands a tool that could be used to record, edit and share audio. A key advantage SoundCloud offers over similar services is that users can embed clips on any website, making it easy to share audio. Users can comment not just on the clip as a whole, but even on specific parts of the audio—making it a useful tool for collaboration. Suppose you’re working on a song with friends in another part of the country—they can click on the exact moment in the song where they want to suggest a change, and leave a comment.