>Online social networking exploded in popularity in recent years among tech-savvy high school and college students, but the honeymoon may be over.
The number of MySpace users dropped from 72 million in October to 68.9 million in December, according to a market research company ComScore. And the amount of time users spend on the sites reportedly fell 14 percent.
The number of people signing up for social networking sites still is increasing, but growth is slower than in previous years, leading some to wonder what it means for the future of these sites that have been hot targets for advertisers trying to market products to young hipsters.
While parties still are being planned on virtual message boards, and you still can find out more than you want to know about the guy down the hall by reading his online profile, for some it’s getting old — and annoying.
“Most of the people I know have moved on from MySpace to Facebook,” said Brad Grace, a 19-year-old Grand Valley State University student who made the switch.
Grace said he switched because MySpace was “flooded with ads.”
Since America Online and other early online systems got this virtual networking started in the 1980s. AOL, a shell of its former self, and interest in sites such as Friendster.com are waning. The current favorites — MySpace and Facebook — are having to find ways to expand for people to connect.
Gerard Akkerhuis, 47, of Grand Rapids, maintains MySpace and Facebook accounts for personal networking.
“It’s entertaining,” he said, adding. “I just ignore all the ads. They don’t bother me all that much. I’m glad it’s free.”
West Ottawa High School senior Chelsea Brazier, 17, deleted her MySpace page recently and does all of her online networking via Facebook, the social network of choice among many local college students.
“MySpace seemed a little juvenile,” Brazier said. “Facebook just seemed better.”
The popularity of social networking sites initially was attractive to advertisers, but users seem numb to even the best efforts to woo them through flashy banner ads.
“They don’t even catch my attention most of the time,” Brazier said about the ads. “They’re kind of annoying.”
She’s not the only one who thinks so.
According to a January report in BusinessWeek, social networks have some of the lowest response rates on the Web, with marketers reporting that as few as four in 10,000 people click on the ads they see on these sites.
The challenge for advertisers is to figure out how to capture the attention of those conversing online.
Good luck, said Roy Winegar, assistant professor in Grand Valley State University’s School of Communication.
“It’s not going to be a 30-second TV commercial,” he said. “It’s not going to be a pop-up or banner ad. It’s more likely to be one of the viral videos on YouTube.”
While users might be spending less time on social networking sites than in previous years, Winegar said for some students “it’s become their primary means of communication. (Some) even dropped e-mail.”
This is true for GVSU sophomore Jennifer Lang, 19, of Naperville, Ill. She started a Facebook account last year and said it has replaced her need to send e-mail and instant messages to her friends. But she still e-mails her mom, who does not have a Facebook account.
“I’ll keep using (Facebook) as long as my friends are using it,” Lang said of the site that helps her make weekend plans without burning cell-phone minutes.
As more working professionals start to network online, Winegar predicts there will be a shift from personal to professional use. He uses social networking sites to communicate with students, but it hasn’t been much of an aid to him professionally “because my peer group doesn’t use it.”
Eric Kunnen, coordinator for instructional technologies at Grand Rapids Community College, has tested several social networking sites to try to figure out ways a college instructor can use it.
“I see social networking as extending the boundaries of the classroom,” Kunnen said, adding many GRCC students use ClassTop’s CourseFeed Facebook application, which integrates with the college’s Blackboard, a program used by many professors to post course information online. The CourseFeed application allows students to monitor social and academic information via their Facebook page.
While market researchers clamor to find the best way to reach young people online, they are going to have trouble selling products via pop-up ads to Erik Miller.
Miller doesn’t have a MySpace or Facebook page and doesn’t want one.
“I’ve never been on it, so I can’t tell if it’s a waste of time,” said the 21-year-old GVSU junior from Pinckney.
Instead of clicking away at the keyboard, Miller prefers to be verbal when it comes to communicating with friends.
“The cell phone is easier,” he said.