Today’s announcement that the Telegraaf Media Groep has acquired the company behind the Hyves social networking site is another troubling sign for locally-oriented media sites. Hyves has achieved quite good penetration in the Dutch market, with almost 11 million Dutch users, over half the total population. Despite its efforts, it hasn’t succeeded much in growing beyond the borders of The Netherlands, however. Other European social media sites have shown the same pattern. StudieVZ.net has captured many German students, Netlog has a reasonable French following and Bebo achieved some UK penetration before fizzling out.
The Hyves announcement does not mention it, but Facebook is the elephant in the room for all of these locally-oriented sites. I have seen it with many of my Dutch friends, who started out on Hyves, but gradually moved over to Facebook as they developed more contacts with people beyond the Dutch borders. Bizarrely, when Google translates the original Dutch page from the Telegraaf into English, most of the references to Hyves get changed to Myspace. Just as many Myspace users have moved to Facebook, so goes it with Hyves.
Today’s acquisition by the Telegraaf reinforces the local character of Hyves. Terms were not disclosed, but I think it is fair to assume that there will be no movies made with Justin Timberlake about Hyves. The consumer social networking market is one where the big get bigger; the dominant site either loses touch with its audience which switches en masse to something else (e.g. Friendster to Myspace to Facebook) or gets more dominant, as Facebook has so far been able to do.
I believe that there is a future for local sites, but not a huge one, particularly in Europe. Certainly, there is an audience which wants local content and values the tight cultural connections that a locally-oriented site can offer. This audience will be most viable in markets which are reasonably isolated by culture or language. Local sites are emerging or even thriving in China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Arabic-speaking countries. Friendster, one of the original social networking sites, was bought last year by a company in Malaysia.
Holland is definitely not isolated, neither culturally or linguistically. While few foreigners speak Dutch, language skills in Holland are so good that if you have any kind of an accent, it can be hard to find someone to speak Dutch with. The Dutch go everywhere on holiday, to live and to work. As cross-border interactions and relations become the norm, the same goes to some extent for most European countries.
Local focus can be a way to differentiate a social networking site. It usually won’t be enough to compete with a behemoth like Facebook, however, especially in Europe.