What makes a social network work? Is it the design of the site? The advertising on it? The logo? It's none of these things, of course.
It's the people.
MySpace proves that you don't need pretty design, and Facebook shows that if you start by identifying an audience (college students) and give them a better way to do something they're already doing (getting to know each other), it is enough to get a social project off the ground.
Fuego Nation, a new social network launching into private beta Friday, runs counter to just about everything I know about social networks. The pitch, from CEO Brogan Keane, starts like this: "We're trying to bottle passion."
The concept of this social network is that you describe your passions, like mountain biking or fashion, and then can discover and connect with other people who also share those passions.
In the demo I saw, which Keane said was early in the development of the product but which looked way too slick to be early stage, users on the network are represented by cards that you can page through in a Coverflow-like carousel. Each card can be flipped over to show what the person says about the passion his or her card represents. That's all the social network that's been built, so far. I didn't get to see the full profiles, the pages built for each passion, or any of the tools to connect with or communicate with others.
But Keane went on to tell me how the system uses game psychology to get people to "level up" by interacting with each other. Only by participating--by attempting to connect with people and getting them to "sponsor" you--can you earn your way from "applicant" to "participant" and get the right to, for example, send direct messages to others.
Meanwhile, you get ads. Some of the people you see on the network are representatives for brands. They don't try to fool you into thinking they're real people, but because there are paid models interspersed in the network itself, neither do you feel that the users run this show. Also, the background of the Flash-based site changes to show advertising images. Again, slickness abounds. The ads were pretty.
The whole demo was pretty. Too pretty, too shiny. Even the logo looks like something a pharmaceutical company paid a design firm for. Halfway through the demo, I really thought I might be part of some weird reality gotcha show, "Punk the Reviewer," perhaps, and I was the chump. I nearly said to Keane, "OK, where's the hidden camera?"
To be fair, Fuego is months from launch. The site will have to get more complex, and hopefully more gritty and more real, as launch date approaches. What I've seen so far I don't like. This product is clearly designed to move ads and to keep people in the system. What should be visible as the core of the product--a passion for helping people connect--seems buried in over-wrought design, evil moustache-twiddling social engineering theory, and advertising models. Consumer brand companies may well want to play in it, but I don't see how it becomes a real community.
I'm not going to write off this product. Keane is smart, and there's time yet to build Fuego into something useful. But generally I think we all want to see user value in a social product first, and then see fancy design and advertising strategy layered on top of it. Good social networks deserve to make money. But the reverse is not true: sites that make a lot of money don't necessarily deserve users. No one likes being exploited.
Compare to: Ning.