Growth for big social networks like Facebook and Twitter will inevitably flatten as users look for options that better match their needs.
Enter the likes of Steam (a PC gaming service stretching out to TVs) and BlackBerry's BBM (a popular app looking for bigger things). Steam has more than 60 million users and BBM has more than 80 million. What else could come along to shake up social networks in the near future?
Facebook remains entrenched at the top of the social network tree — with well over a billion users — so it is hard to see Mark Zuckerberg's baby falling from grace. Yet Facebook's growth is predicted to slow. Similarly, Twitter remains king of the short messaging services with around 300 million users. But growth is slowing as it approaches its US initial public offering. Both services have broad appeal and reach, but are also struggling with low-quality posts, advertising fatigue and other issues could send users looking elsewhere for their social needs.
Alongside Facebook or Twitter accounts, other services are starting to take up more of users' time. Instagram (acquired by Facebook) and Pinterest grow user numbers around photo sharing, while StumbleUpon and Reddit build communities by spreading and discussing news of interest to users.
Finding something of interest is more valuable to growing numbers of users than just keeping up with friends and family. In reality, bulletin boards were social networks long before the term was coined, but now many types of services could become a social network.
Steam, a 10-year old project from game developer Valve Software, started out as a digital store for PC games. Then it evolved into a gaming community. Now, the company's PC and mobile apps include plenty of entry points for social interaction, with discussion on games, talk between members, organized tournaments or matches and plenty of off-topic chat.
Steam recently announced it had more than 65 million members, making it larger than Microsoft's Xbox Live service. The latter that drives social features on the Xbox consoles, including the upcoming Xbox One, and Windows Phones. Steam is growing in other dimensions too, with a new operating system (OS), controller and a range of micro PCs designed to play on TV sets — bringing Steam to a living room near you.
If home gaming is set for a rebirth in the wake of new consoles, micro-consoles like Ouya and Vita TV and mobile-streaming-to-TV, Steam will play a major part in that trend. Other services like Sony's PlayStation Network and cross-platform efforts like Raptr.com all provide a home for users to discuss their hobby.
Finely tuned advertising for these narrow-focus services will provide more relevant marketing and less of the muscle-building, irrelevant dross that is slowly choking Facebook and other general sites. While one social network for everything might be a distant ideal, having several networks based around your hobbies seems to be the way forward.
BlackBerry on the Move
Steam might never be a fully-functional social network, but if its developers add an extra layer or feature to attract casual gamers, its numbers could rocket massively. Taking another approach to social is BlackBerry. Just behind Steam in user numbers, BlackBerry's BBM messenger app hit 80 million users rather rapidly thanks to the app launching on iOS and Android, adding another 20 million users in a week.
BlackBerry wants to increase engagement with the app by the launch of Channels (currently in beta), which will also provide monetization opportunities. If the new features generate traction and interest among those users, then another social network is born based on the creation and sharing of content, with brands likely to get in on the act too.
All the major players will be watching how this landscape changes, with Microsoft's Skype well positioned to become a social network in some form. If growth continues, it won't be long before the likes of BBM, Steam or another contender starts nipping at the heels of Google+ and the other networks, generating interest and calls for mergers.
Even at this late date, we're seeing (rather optimistic) calls for Google to buy Twitter before the IPO, and with the mobile-focused players looking for extensions to their own products, how long until some of these are snapped up to add a bunch of users.
How do you divide your online social time these days, are your habits changing? And would you rather keep these services separate, or see them absorbed into a larger entity? Certainly, the future for social will continue to evolve, encompassing more devices and smaller niches, but as users spread their time, and look more locally and topically, another Facebook seems unlikely.