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The next big Facebook

Facebook has hit the billion mark, but it’s not game over, as MySpace makes a comeback, Pinterest grabs a niche and, in Africa, Mxit makes a new play, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Facebook reached the milestone of one billion users last week, with many believing it would become an alternative to the rest of the World Wide Web. But, as social media research has shown in South Africa, volume does not equal value. As more people join Facebook, the average user tends to spend less time, not more, on that particular network.

The challenge facing Facebook is that there are always new social networks that do very specific things especially well. Any of these could be the next big thing in social media, and many ideas that are not even off the drawing board could well end Facebook’s dominance in years to come.

In some parts of the world, Facebook still plays second fiddle to more dominant social networks. In China, it has less than a million users, compared to more than 700-million for the QQ instant messaging (IM) service owned by Tencent of which South Africa’s Naspers holds a 34% share.

The biggest social network in Africa, Mxit, was born in Stellenbosch as an almost zero-cost IM service that could be used on even the most basic cellphone. In South Africa, it has 9,3-million highly active users meaning they are regular visitors mostly teenagers and young adults. It has more than that in the rest of Africa, and maintains a slight edge over Facebook across the continent. Facebook is set to overtake it, but Mxit itself is evolving into a broader social media platform.

In recent weeks, both Standard Bank’s Instant Money and FNB’s eWallet were integrated with Mxit. This is not only an indication of these banks’ willingness to explore new avenues for expanding their services, but also of Mxit’s capabilities of being far more than just a messaging tool. Don’t expect it to slink quietly into the sunset just because there’s a big new social kid in town.

Mxit faces rising competition in the IM space, such as relative newcomer 2Go, which has 1,5-million users in South Africa and a claimed 10-million in Nigeria. Global player WhatsApp has more than 4,5-million South African users. Friendura, from the same stable as 2Go, is also beginning to make inroads. Facebook itself, which has introduced chat-only cellphone apps, will clearly be an IM challenger and be challenged by these.

In the broader social media arena, where Mxit hopes to become a major player, fascinating new networks have emerged. The most interesting of these, for now, is Pinterest, which allows users to create pinboards of images that they find on the Web or of their own uploaded images.

This raises numerous copyright questions, as someone can create a vast bank of other people’s images on topics of personal interest. Pinterest is adamant that the re-pinning process means the source is clear and credited, but there is little doubt it will face legal challenges as it grows. It has 23-million users at last count, according to Comscore, which tracks Web traffic.

In South Africa, according to the SA Social Media Landscape 2012 report released this week, Pinterest has 150 000 users. But this low number should not be confused with low impact. Its users are highly engaged and, because Pinterest is largely a visual medium, it lends itself to brands that have a strong visual identity.

Fashion and food brands, in particular, work well on Pinterest, but I regularly hear from people who use it effectively as an educational medium and even a tool for speech therapy. My personal use was sparked by a fascination with single-malt whisky and the discovery that the stills at many whisky distilleries resemble alien creatures from bad sci-fi movies. Sharing such images has become a vehicle for entertainment, satire and, yes, education in the intricacies of single-malt.

Then there is MySpace, one of the first major social networks, which was all but destroyed by Facebook. Media baron Rupert Murdoch made the worst buy of his life when his News Corporation paid $580-million for it just before it imploded. Music idol Justin Timberlake probably made the best investment of his life when he bought it on a veritable firesale from Murdoch for $35-million.

He is about to relaunch it as a music community network, and it is looking cool enough as opposed to a truly ugly interface at the time Murdoch bought it to suggest it will be a major social media player again.

Facebook has reached a magical milestone, but this not Game Over.

* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter or Pinterest on @art2gee

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