A slew of companies have sprung up to help kids decorate their pages—and many won't make it
Teens love to make stuff their own—be it writing on a favorite pair of jeans, plastering notebooks with stickers, or decorating lockers with photos of friends or celebrities. It's a natural part of forming one's identity to tell the world, "Look at me. I have these friends, support these causes, and love these bands." And as social networking sites and blogging communities have become virtual spaces for adolescents to call their own, it's natural that kids want to decorate them, too.
The virtual decorating began with instant-messenger icons and away messages, and has now extended to ringtones and avatars. News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace opened the door to what's now being called the MySpace ecosystem by letting users mess with code and create their own profile layouts, many of them neon, blinking, and very busy—causing some people in the design world to complain of user-generated monstrosities that offend aesthetic sensibilities.
Young people continued to create their own layouts, and soon MySpace layout sites began popping up everywhere. Layouts were just the beginning. Teens began posting song lyrics, music, videos, slide shows of their friends or favorite celebrities, and voice comments or greetings on their MySpace profiles.
Little wonder that according to October's Nielsen Net Ratings, the No. 1 site for teens age 12 to 17 was PLyrics, a simply designed site offering "the biggest collection of punk lyrics." No. 2? A little-known site called Snapvine, which lets users create voice messages to leave on profiles. Coming in third was a MySpace layout site called Whateverlife, run by a 16-year-old girl.
The ecosystem is brimming with companies that create applications, or "widgets," to live on blogs or social networking profiles. But as the fledgling market crowds, winners and losers are beginning to emerge. One of the first keys to survival is having a firm grasp of exactly who's using widgets and how.
Not all widgets are teen-oriented, but since more than half of all online Americans age 12 to 17 use online social networking sites, the most popular applications are being consumed and spread by teens. While adults can't understand why anyone would pay to download wallpaper for a cell phone, teens wouldn't think twice.
Where adults leave matter-of-fact messages in their own voice, teens will create a voice comment for a friend's profile that involves singing, rapping, telling a story, or sending a "Wazzup?" Adults might create a slide show from a recent vacation and post it on Yahoo!'s (YHOO) Flickr. Teens will create a slide show of friends, adding animated hearts and rainbows and thought bubbles with funny sayings.
The ecosystem is bigger than MySpace. Several other large social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo, and Tagged all followed MySpace's lead in letting users post widgets on profiles. And just as new niche social networks launch every day for everyone from urban teens to student athletes to young fashionistas, there are new widget makers hoping to achieve the viral success of sites like Snapvine.
One of the leaders is Slide, which just received its third round of funding in November (the second was reportedly for $8 million). Slide founder Max Levchin claims his company has done no marketing at all.
"The service has grown simply by word-of-mouth," Levchin says. "It continues to grow exponentially because it's easy to use, has a simple, intuitive interface, and serves a real need."
Why Widgets Work
Levchin puts his finger on one of the key ingredients for widgets to succeed: they have to serve a need. For teens, that could be typing "Yeah Baby," and having it appear in RockYou's Glitter Text on a MySpace page, or putting a QuickKwiz that calculates the name of your soul mate on your Live Journal blog.
Even though Slide offers an elegant application, the popularity of sites like PLyrics and QuickKwiz proves that the content or function of the widget trumps looks. Becoming an official partner of a popular social networking site like Bebo and Tagged doesn’t hurt either. That’s what RockYou, Slide, and Photobucket have done.
The biggest advantage will go to the widget makers that get it right first. Once teens love a widget, they'll post it and tell their friends about it. "Me too" widgets that don't offer anything different are going to struggle to achieve the same kind of organic viral success. Just ask Film Loop, a slide show company recently dumped into Tech Crunch's "dead pool," the blog's deathwatch for startups, after the company laid off most of its staff and its attempts to sell itself failed.
Another big challenge is that widgets are parasitic in nature. They depend on the good graces of sites like MySpace to proliferate throughout a network. What's to keep MySpace from creating its own widgets or demanding payment from these companies? For now, MySpace is keeping its walls open, but every once in a while, when a glitch causes widgets not to play, the makers begin to panic and tech blogs speculate whether MySpace will become a walled garden.
Inside the Teen Mind
Which will survive in the end? Pete Cashmore, who runs Mashable.com, a blog tracking the players in the social media space, says it's developers who best understand social network users.
"A lot of developers have realized that widgets are the key to viral growth, but they fail to get inside the mind of the average user," said Cashmore. "Some of the most successful sites in this ecosystem are run by teens who know instinctively what will be popular with their peers."
As long as young people continue to be a key driver in the growth of social media, and as long as large social networks allow widgets, the MySpace ecosystem will continue to flourish. And the widget makers that best understand what teens want in a widget will thrive within that system.