Sarah Perez on ReadWriteWeb today argues that the next social networks will be powered By WordPress and Movable Type. She bases her conclusion on the excellent new release of MovableType that delivers a full social networking solution, and Automattic's Buddypress acquisition for WordPress, a solution that turns WordPress MU into a social networking platform.
The offers from both WordPress (WP) and MovableType (MT) are positive steps forward in the evolution of the self hosted blogging platform, but availability doesn't equate to takeup. Some social networks in the future may well use MT or WP, but the next wave of social networks will NOT be powered by WordPress and MovableType.
The reason is remarkably simple, and the evidence is already apparent. Time.
Time on two fronts. People are becoming time poor and are finding it harder to split their time between competing services. A new wave of social networks based on WP or MT will only add to the noise, and unless there is a compelling reason to join, most will simply ignore these new networks. The move is on to aggregation, not separation. Then there's the need to maintain separate logins on each install. There are some OpenID solutions for WP and MT, but they are neither commonly installed nor is OpenID yet commonly used. There appears to be no interoperability between installs like Indenti.ca, so each install will be a walled garden of content, unique to the site, but unable to communicate with other installations.
The second time point is administration. The ability to add guest blogs or forums to blogs has been available in various forms for years, but how many installs do we see? A full blown social network is an administrative nightmare for all but large blogs with a lot of money to throw at staff to take care of that side of the business. And even then, is there a compelling business case to be had in administering these installs? Then there's the real possibility that these social networks will be spam honey pots. Even in 2008, most still face comment spam, imagine dealing with spam across a full social network.
Of those sites who currently run social networks or even forums, how many are truly successful? Mashable is the only blog I can think of in this space who runs a remotely successful social network, and even then, it's not exactly a hive of activity. TechCrunch runs a forum that at least while I was there was prone to spam and wasn't heavily used, at least when considering the traffic of the site itself compared with the activity on the forum.
The Ning Solution
The true success story in the hosted social networking space is Ning. The site has 370,000 social networks as of July, but only manages 3.5 million to 4 million page views per month, or roughly 10 visitors per social network. That traffic aside, the selling case between a local MT or WP install vs Ning is strong. On Ning, your login works across every social network on the site, it is fully hosted so you don't have to worry as much about spam and abuse, it's tested, and for the basic service it's completely free. There are plenty of Ning competitors out there as well, so choice isn't lacking. You can also pay to map the Ning social network to your own domain and to show ads, so the control argument with a self install is negated some what. If your site did have a compelling case for including a social network (and few statically probably do) I don't see why you wouldn't sign up with Ning or a similar service.
I don't want to sound to be too harsh on either WP or MT for these features being available. They are a positive progression in the evolution of blogging, and no doubt that some will seek to add social networking features to their blogs. However, given these features are in the most part already available both externally and within each site (BuddyPress isn't new), and similar features such as forums are old school but are not widespread, there will be no rush of MT or WP powered social networks. Nor perhaps should there be.