Social networking sites will shortly face a crisis of their own creation, as consumers question the returns they achieve from the time invested in staying on top of their bourgeoning networks of friends and pseduo-friends.

In the past few months, Facebook appears to have hit a tipping point. It has quickly moved away from its college student origins to become a global platform, attracting both social and business users. It is roughly in the same position MySpace was approximately 12 months ago, with both a soaring profile in mainstream media and, as a consequence, a dramatic spike in new user registrations.

Both sites have experienced a minor backlash. While MySpace had to grapple with the presence of ‘child predators’, Facebook is increasingly finding its way onto the list of sites blocked by corporate networks, in response to the amount of time employees are spending updating their profiles and following those of others.

While troubling, these setbacks are largely minor, and can be adequately addressed through a combination of improvements to both policy and technology.

There is a much larger danger lurking ahead for these and other social networking sites. Three issues in particular are a cause for concern:

1. Dunbar Number – Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has theorised that there is a natural limit to the number of people individuals can call ‘friends’. There is, he believes, a “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.” Put simply, there are limits to the number of people you are able to know and relate to at a level that could be legitimately described as friendship.

The upper limit is 150 people, and even then, social groups only tend to cluster in that number when there is a very good incentive to do so (e.g. due to external economic or social pressures). Most social groupings tend to be much smaller, and experience dysfunction should they grow to a number beyond double digits. 

Nearly all social networks have succumbed to a level of pseudo-friendship, in which most professed ‘relationships’ lack authenticity and are driven more by narcissism and competitive one-upmanship. If such activities come to dominate the social network, it can quickly and irreversibly erode the foundations of the social structure.

2. Social Networks have multiple dimensions – As observed in an earlier post, social networking tools fail to recognise the most basic tenet of social networks; they exist at multiple levels, and occupy different aspects of our lives. We have social groupings based upon different types of relationships: family, friends, work, community, sporting and others. No social networking site that I am aware of provides a facility for separating and managing relationships at multiple levels.

3. Time Sink – A commonly accepted wisdom for building successful online communities is to have visitors ‘invest’ time on the site. The more time they invest, the more ‘sticky’ the site becomes; that is, the less likely they will move to a competing site offering similar functionality. The developers of social networking sites have embraced this notion, offering an array of tools and widgets for building your profile and adding a personal touch. This is fine when you only belong to one or two social networking sites. However, reflecting the fact that we have more than one social network, a growing number of individuals are members of multiple social networking sites. This creates significant scaling issues, as creating, publishing and managing social profiles can become a time-intensive task – and that is before you look at what your friends have been up to.

The confluence of these three factors will inevitably result in a potentially more damaging backlash against social networking sites, as consumers seek to reduce the amount of time and effort required for “social grooming” (that is, maintaining profiles and responding to invites and profile updates by friends).

At its core, this is a technology problem rather than a social problem, in that the underlying social drivers are readily identifiable and comparatively easy to address. The problem stems from both the original assumptions made by social networking site founders, and the mismatch between their original technology designs and their final commercial model.

It is inevitable that there will be market pressure to decentralise personal profile data. Consumers will eventually demand tools that allow them to better manage their profile and network data, in a manner that is not tied to a particular service. Specifically, they will demand tools that allow them to maintain either a single source of profile data that is automatically published to their preferred social networking platforms or, alternatively, a single tool for managing and maintaining multiple profiles across multiple sites.

If such tools are now forthcoming, social networking services may find that they are unable to build upon their current market penetration, and fail to become an entrenched, mainstream resource.