A look at social networks in General:
Social networking has been around for the past 10 or 11 years, It started out as Friendster,Hi5 or Myspace or a number of other sites and matured into thousands of individual networks from all over the world. To be precise social networks where existent prior to the Myspace era in the form of forums, newsletters etc. The internet as such is a big huge social network, the different sites have just provide a more channeled path for the interaction and made the technology a lot more user friendly.
First of all I would like to consider a case, that of India, India joined the social network rush in its initial days, that is when the social networks as they are today started taking shape India was already decently connected if not by percentage but by numbers. That is there where already a lot of Indians online, even though that number was small by percentage. This prompted a lot of entrepreneurs to jump into the flame and burn themselves. Many Indian entrepreneurs tried to be the next Tom Anderson or Chris De Wolfe, but the bitter fact was that as most startups at least 99.9% of these websites do not exist today. The funny part was that at a point of time, My brother , my wife and I ourselves almost started one, we really believed that we could beat these big shots, lucky for us we did not find the money to start one.
Now from the Indian story one thing we can understand is that social networks grow only according to one factor, the number of people that are already on it. So simply put a site that started first should generally be at a better position, however it is not so. In the beginning factors like simplicity where more important and through some chaotic process some sufficed and got to be preferred more than others. If we analyse the situation in the US, Friendster was the first popular Social Network, but it being more or less dating oriented took away its charm, in the case of MySpace the weakening factor was simply that it allowed too much customization, that is it was more like a personal webpage creation tool than a social network. Finally when Facebook emerged they learnt from the mistakes of the other networks and built something which revolves around friends communicating. Today also people tend to move away from one network to another, the factors governing this are totally different from what they where say 5 or 6 years ago, but that is beyond what am writing about here. If we analyse already established networks like Orkut for India or Brazil, the chance of a major migration is low unless they remain to frigid to change.
Lets get back to the topic and into Africa:
For many years, say from the time internet was retailed through satellites ,Africa has had pockets of internet connection all over. However the cost ensured that it was only available to a very limited crowed, just to bring things into perspective lets say we could compare the number of people connected in Africa to the number of people in the Nature Lovers community on Facebook today or we could say half the number. This ensured that there was not even a handful of Social networks targeted at Africa, like it happened in India or China. That is the biggies never ever had competition from any African social networks. With the coastline Fibers on both east and west getting connected the African continent has started becoming more and more connected to the Internet.
Let us just try to understand who is bringing Social networks to Africa, there are mainly two or three groups who are bringing Social Network to Africa. Social networks as I had mentioned before spreads through word of mouth, Tools like bulk invite found on many of the social networks only have a augmenting role in spreading Social networks, that is the emails that one gets asking to join a social network have less role than a friend actually telling you that “Hey you know, I met our old classmate John on a Social-network, most of our friends are there, are you not on it ? ” such a comment from a friend will ensure that the one listening will join the network the same day or the next time he is on the internet.
Now who all are saying the above said sentence and which social network can we expect the African internet user to join. This takes us to the question of who is bringing social networks to Africa. The biggest crowed that is bringing social network into Africa are foreign educated African students. They get on the network, when they go outside to study and they bring the habit with them and take their peers back home on to these networks, they do not need to come back home to do this usually it happens when they are still in the foreign country. The second crowed can be the volunteers coming from various countries to Africa, they tend to be young and also they interact with people of similar age, they also initiate a huge number of African internet user to Social Networks. The next group are the expatriates working in Africa, they form the bulk of the initiators.
The bigger question is which one will dominate in Africa, till recently each country had its own Favorite social network. We could say Orkut was favored in India and Brazil, Myspace in US, Bebo in Europe and so on. Now that is not entirely true with the simple fact that Facebook is slowly becoming popular equally all over, the reason I attribute to this is simply that Social Networking was fairly mature by the time Facebook started and they just had to refine the whole scenario. It was like the wheel was already invented and all that they had to do was to put together 4 wheels to make a cart. Now for this very reason Facebook has the Highest chance of dominating Africa in general, however in the French speaking African countries there is a higher chance for Bebo to get the major share i attribute this to the huge French speak crowed on the network. Even though many people try to use Social Networks to meet new friends, they are by far used more as a medium for friend keeping than friend making.
So is there any thing social networks are doing for Africa in a positive manner? I have to say yes, there are a lot of micro social networks being built in Africa very successfully, to address various social problem an example would be the hand full of Ushahidi Instances that are running today.
So what is the difference of social networks in Africa and any other place, I would simply say that we have to wait to find out. One thing I feel is that if social networks have to become a widely used product in Africa, it will have to move out of the internet. Mobile phone based platforms will be more attractive, however if it is only mobile phone based it looses its charm, a model like the one tested out by Orkut in India of delivering content via SMS would find better foot hold in Africa than it did in India or Brazil, because SMS is an easily accessible medium.
Would I be running around trying, like before, to built the next MySpace for Africa, the answer is simply NO. The reason simply that the scale of deployment is simple overwhelming. Will there be a Social Networking rush like in India, China or Brazil, the chances are low but surely some flies will burn flying into the fire.
Social networking is still in its infancy in Africa, surely it will catch on but what forms its going to take and which one of the biggies will dominate time will have to tell.