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Portals vs. social networks: Which will prevail?

Both social networks and portals are striving to eventually become something entirely different: the new operating system.

Over at Micropersuasion, Steve Rubel is making a bold prediction: The portals will be big winners in the social-networking wars.

"Social networking is certainly rising and there seems to be no end in sight to the phenomenon. However, what I do know is that people will jump around from one Myfaceborkutspace to another and not all of them will win," Rubel wrote.

He is referring to Long Tail author Chris Anderson, who points out that all good web sites should have elements of social networking and therefore suggests that social networking is a "feature, not a destination." Rubel believes that the portals' key advantage is that they "own the glue that keeps many of usconnected to our structured social networks (e.g. Myfaceborkutspace) and the looser ones--e.g. a personal network of contacts. And that glue is a trusted communication system that works with every person and social net."

That's true. You could also say that our buddy list is our social network, and we appreciate just plugging it into the most convenient and trusted network of our choice. Call it the "floating network." I therefore also agree with Rubel when he says, "No matter which social network(s) you participate in, even if you float, you're going to turn to your trusted communication system to manage it all. This will include any or all of the following: a) Web-based e-mail, b) instant messaging (which is nowadays integrated), c) RSS and d) telephony tools like Grand Central."

There are good reasons why there is a lot at stake for the traditional portals, and there are good reasons (Rubel names them) to predict they will not just sit back and watch the young social-networking sites own the game, especially now that business has begun facing up to social networks. And yet, I am hesitant to follow Rubel's prediction that the portals will have the upper hand in this conflict. In fact, I think he gets the conflict wrong.

I don't think this is as strict an antagonism as Rubel describes it, and I would even question the "war parties" as he identifies them: On the one side, the emerging social networks that are relentlessly trying to enhance the one main feature they're built upon ("making connections") into a platform. On the other side, the big portals, the AOLs, MSNs, Yahoos, that are seeking to operate more like social networks. This is an over-simplified showdown, for Rubel stages a competition where, in fact, we witness a co-evolution. The portals will adapt the best social-networking features, for example by activating the "dormant social networks" they own (see Yahoo Mash), and the social networks will adapt some of the portals' features; just yesterday AllFacebook and Paid Content speculated that Facebook is preparing to launch a music platform, either as a potential iTunes killer (according to AllFacebook) or a MySpace competitor (according to Paid Content).

However--and herein lies the major difference to Rubel's assumption--both social networks and portals are striving to eventually become something entirely different: the new operating system. Facebook is not shy about its intentions, and you could argue that it has already transformed the site into something much bigger than a social network.

It is a not a social-networking war; it is a race to become the de facto operating system for the social networker. And that is, of course, why Google, which is neither a social network nor a portal, is in the game too. The company is said to be feverishly working on "out-facebooking" Facebook by introducing a meta-platform that integrates not only a suite of Google services (like iGoogle, Gmail, Google Talk, Orkut, etc.) but is also 100 percent open to third-party developers--and other social networks. Google's recent acquisition of mobile social-network Zingku indicates that this uber-platform may have a strong mobile component and the long-rumored free, ad-based phone service. In other words, while social networks and portals are fighting the "social networking wars," Google may be winning the actual competition at hand: to become the dominant operating system for all of our communications. You can also call it the World Wide Web.