2009: Social networks go mainstream

This is the year your uncle became a Facebook friend, and your company started Twittering

As 2009 draws to a close, it's clear that the year was a watershed for social networks and the firms that own them.

The year saw major changes at sites like Facebook and Twitter as millions of non-technical users became regular users of social networks.

In 2009, social networks no longer featured posts with reams and reams of drivel -- like telling people what kind of sandwich you had for lunch or about the great parking space you grabbed near the gym. Instead, they were used far more to let the world learn about everything from political unrest to plane crashes to political events in real time.

The user base of social networks this year expanded greatly from the traditional teenage and college student set. It now includes many of their parents and even grandparents who now use the technology as a primary mode of communication. While it's been a bit embarrassing for the kids involved to have their Uncle Fred befriend them on Facebook, the broader audience has been a boon to social networking companies.

Special report: Looking back at 2009, ahead to 2010
Special report: Looking back at 2009, ahead to 2010

"It looks like 2009 will be known as the year that social networking went mainstream," said Dan Olds, an analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group. "This was the year when Mom, Dad, and even Grandma found Facebook and Twitter, and used them to make the Web a part of their lives -- often for the first time."

Perhaps most significant is that companies in various industries started to see how social networks can help boost business even in a recession. While many CEOs may still be a bit disconnected from the social networking phenomenon, many companies, like Zappos.com and Dell Inc., have found ways to draw in new customers using Web 2.0 methods.

"Really, 2009 has been a watershed year for social networking," said Olds. "Business has embraced both Twitter and Facebook as a way to communicate directly with customers and to inexpensively get their points across to a large number of folks. Much of the fear that business had of social networking seems to have abated as they become more comfortable with the concept and see the advantages. We're still at a point where only a small number of businesses have social networking strategies, but that number is increasing quickly over time."

And several analysts noted that the results of online user counts bear out such opinions.

Earlier this fall, for instance, Facebook logged its 350 millionth user. And this summer, Nielsen Co. reported that In April, Facebook users spent 13.9 billion minutes on the site, 700% more than the year-earlier total of 1.7 billion minutes.

And Twitter hasn't been a shrinking violet in the social networking scene in 2009. In March, for example, the number of U.S. visitors to the site increased by http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9131679/Twitter_s_U.S._users_nearly_double_in_March 131% just from February, according to online researcher comScore Inc. And Experian Hitwise, an Internet monitoring firm reported this fall that Twitter's September traffic increased by 1,170% compared to year-earlier month.

All this growth did have to come at someone's expense, and that burden seems to have fallen on MySpace. A pioneer in the social networking scene and an early market leader, MySpace's share fell behind Facebook globally and in the U.S. this year for the first time. Facebook's share of the U.S. market reached 30.26% in September while MySpace's September share plunged 55% to 30.26% from a market leading 66.84% share a year earlier, according to Experian Hitwise.

But the expanse of social networking users isn't just about the sheer numbers. It's also about the breadth of the users. Everyone from the kid who sat behind you in homeroom during sophomore year to Oprah Winfrey to NASA astronauts orbiting in space are connecting with their fans online this year.

The task that remains for social networking firms is a big one -- finding ways to generate revenue and profit.

Twitter's leaders have been adamant through 2009 that they are comfortable taking their time to come up with and to implement a viable business plan. Both Twitter CEO Evan Williams and co-founder Biz Stone have said they want to focus first on building out the site's features, and then focus on the money.

By year's end, though, Twitter had signed potential revenue generating deals with Google and Microsoft to help them offer users the ability to get real time results from the Google and Bing search engines. And Microsoft signed a similar deal with Facebook.

While none of the companies disclosed the deals' financial details, industry watchers speculate that both Twitter and Facebook finally hit on a potentially big pay day.

Jim McGregor, an analyst with In-Stat, said the real-time search deals are an indication of what users can expect in 2010. "I think the early adopter phase is over," said McGregor. "Now, we'll see more of a judgment period on what the true value is here. This was a big year but, no, there's definitely more to come."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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