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Yahoo Mash: When getting social isn't enough

The untimely death of Yahoo's would-be networking site is a lesson for the industry. It just isn't enough to invite people to build a friends list anymore.

Let's hope Yahoo has finally learned that the maxim "If you build it, they will come" simply does not apply to a social network.

The Silicon Valley mainstay and onetime Microsoft shopping-spree target is quietly shutting down Yahoo Mash, its latest foray into creating a general-interest social network like a Facebook or MySpace.

It's the latest social-networking failure for Yahoo, which was unable to get its earlier "Yahoo 360" network off the ground, and once attempted to purchase Facebook, only to have its billion-dollar offer turned down.

Mash was cute, with a slick interface, and Yahoo already had the advantage of millions of registered users to roll right into it. But its failure to catch on is indicative of a bigger truth in the social-networking world: a new player in this saturated market has to offer something legitimately new and useful.

Yes, really. And let it be a lesson to any other would-be Facebook killers.

Critics of social networks say they're nothing but gimmicky fads, pointing to the popularity of silly Facebook applications and the flashy glitter text that adorns many teenagers' MySpace profiles. That just isn't true: if you look at the two biggest social-networking success stories, Facebook and MySpace, each one has served a distinct utility since its debut.

People initially signed up for MySpace because it offered unprecedented tools for independent bands to spread the word about their music--and ways for fans to keep track of those bands. Facebook gained popularity because, in its infancy, it was the digital version of a college directory.

Other broad-reaching social networks that have seen decent growth have either targeted a large demographic--Bebo and under-25s, for example--or have achieved localized success in regions of the world that hadn't yet caught the social-networking bug, like Hi5 in Latin America.

Even still, they have to differentiate themselves: Bebo, which has been acquired by AOL, touts its library of original video programming. Hi5 recently launched a mobile site that it hopes will make it appealing to consumers who don't regularly use a personal computer.

In the days of AOL People Connection, the novelty factor of creating a profile and giving yourself an identity online was enough. But a decade later, filling out an online profile is about as interesting as filing tax forms.

If Yahoo, or any other aspiring Facebook rival, wants to take social networking seriously, it has to give its millions of users a reason to create profiles and connect with friends. Virtual pets that your friends can "snorgle" are not a reason. Neither are drag-and-drop widgets--that's something that could draw people to a personal home page service, not a social network.

Here's a thought: Yahoo would've done better in the social-networking market to introduce a friends list and news feed option to its members' home pages rather than attempting to create a standalone service. That way, it wouldn't have to change existing members' browsing habits one bit.

There are plenty of compelling properties at Yahoo's fingertips: imagine if a feed on Yahoo's home page told you which of your contacts were uploading Flickr photos, RSVPing to events on Upcoming, or voting up news stories on Yahoo Buzz.

Look at Google: its social network, Orkut, is big in Brazil and India but not globally. Instead of trying to push Orkut into markets that are already saturated by competing social networks, Google has quietly been tying together existing properties into a more social experience.

Just this week, Google announced the addition of a "following" feature to blog platform Blogger, and it invited users to import the list of Blogger-hosted blogs they subscribe into its Google Reader RSS software so that they can read them alongside other blogs. Google Calendar's collaborative datebooks have been tied into the Gmail client. And when developer applications became the craze du jour, Google developed standards like OpenSocial and the forthcoming Friend Connect for other social networks to deploy.

To be fair, Google has had its share of social-networking blunders: it acquired mobile where-you-at service Dodgeball and failed to find a niche for it within the company, instead letting it wither on the vine. It's also still unclear as to what Google will do with Jaiku, the Twitter-like start-up that it acquired last year, and the likes of OpenSocial and Friend Connect are still too early-stage to deem them surefire successes.

Regardless, what's important is that Google seems to understand that there isn't room in the market to debut and promote a mass-appeal social network. With the demise of Mash, perhaps Yahoo gets the point now too. But while Mash likely wasn't a resource or cash drain in the end, Yahoo is now on the PR defensive.

And, goodness knows, it doesn't need any more of that.