Microsoft spins off social networking site
Back in November 2003 I blogged about a social networking project within Microsoft Research called MyWallop. At the time, fuelled by what I call the first phase of social networking, I speculated that something like this could become an opt-in part of Windows, unleashing an extraordinary ability for people to create useful connections across all PC users. The social networking space has – for now – moved on to focus on the big succcess stories like MySpace, which are based on personal expression, social identity, and entertainment, rather than business or utilitarian links (a space which has not gone away and will return in a different guise). It turns out that Microsoft sat on the project for several years, then finally decided to spin it out, with the expectation that it would be able to do better outside Microsoft’s walls than within them. Given what’s happening with some of Microsoft’s other initiatives, a wise choice. Wallop has now raised $13 million in venture capital, and just released the product in beta, with the intent of taking it to a full release early next year.
Wallop has a significantly different business model to other social networking sites. They have decided to eschew advertising, despite the massive deal MySpace won with Google. Instead, they charge members for the ability to customize their personal space. The personal spaces in MySpace’s are very basic and difficult to personalize extensively. As other commentators have noted, Wallop’s positioning is closer to CyWorld, which has had massive success in South Korea and recently launched in the US. CyWorld enables members to personalize their spaces to mimic their own homes, or create fantasy rooms. However in Wallop, members can also make money – if visitors buy the entertainment or features they have selected to place on their site, Wallop takes just 30%, leaving the rest of the revenue to the member. The idea is that the space becomes a marketplace for a wide range of digital expression, across music, avatars, art, animation, and more. Significantly, the entire site was developed in Flash, which enables Flash developers to create and sell artifacts within the site. In short, Wallop is a very interesting experiment to see whether people will both want to build networks in this environment, and spend money on content there. I think it will do at least fairly well, as it represents a real alternative to the existing social networking sites, but the critical issue here is scale. How well it does will significantly impact which way the social networking space evolves from here, as companies uncover what business models work or don’t work, and copy and refine the ones that do well.