Happy hours and hype on the social-networking sites

Where did everybody go? Recent Nielsen Online statistics reveal that the social-networking congregating online may not be hanging out where you think they are.

Nielsen's September numbers for thirteen sites with a significant social-networking aspect provide stirring testimony to the ability of many of us to do anything but work on our computers -- and, obliquely, a look at how the hype still outstrips reality in many cases.

The year 2008's most popular social-networking site was also 2007's -- that would be MySpace, boasting a unique-audience-members count of 59,352,000 (sampling-derived numbers provided to BetaNews were rounded to the nearest thousand in the customary fashion). MySpace users also spend the most time per person per session on the site, at 1:47:55.

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But MySpace isn't where the growth has been in 2008; the service grew its audience year-over-year by just 1.3%. Instead, second-ranked Facebook is coming up strong, with 115.6% year-over-year growth (18,090,000 audience member sin '07, 39,003,000 in '08). The time spent on the service is comparable to MySpace at 1:38:27 per session, presumably not all of which was spent playing Scrabulous, blogging about Scrabulous, or whining because Scrabulous is offline.

LinkedIn, with its emphasis on professional networking (no pokes, no Scrabulous, no problem) showed 192.6% growth, taking the service up to 11,924,000 unique members from just over 4 million in 2007. But believe it or not, LinkedIn's not the third-largest social networking site; depending on your point of view, they fall to fourth behind stalwart Classmates.com or fifth behind Classmates and Yahoo photo-share site Flickr, with 16,215,000 audience members in September.

Classmates, despite a pretty absolute lack of hype, grew its audience by a respectable 28.3% over the year to 17,075,000 -- not bad for a service that's been online since 1995. Things went less well for fellow veteran Friendster, still a powerhouse elsewhere in the world but fading from the US scene. Friendster actually saw a 16.3% drop year-to-year, and for September drew in about 849,000 unique visitors. (Nielsen notes that because traffic's low, Friendster's numbers are prone to comparatively wide variation.) The only other site in our inquiry to display a usage drop was Microsoft's Windows Live Spaces, losing about 11.3% of its audience year-over-year but still big enough to hold down sixth place.

Once upon a time, Friendster's hype was a mighty thing. In 2008, surely the hype crown would go to micro-blogging service Twitter, which displayed growth of whale-like proportions -- 342.6% year over year, from an estimated 533,000 members in 2007 to 2,359,000 now. Multimedia site tagged.com showed comparable growth (325.5%) and audience size (3,857,000), but with less media uproar. Though tagged's not averse to a little hype on its own, trumpeting 70+ million registered users -- true perhaps, but a good reminder that registrations on these services don't always translate to regular usage.

Elsewhere on the scene, roll-your-own networking site Ning displayed muscular growth (251%) on its way to 2,955,000 audience members. UK-based, young-skewing Bebo.com picked up around 119,000 uniques, raising its September '08 total to 2,418,000, and last.fm -- not precisely a social site, but a site around which a great deal of music-related socializing revolves -- grew 121.1% to reach 1,879,000 unique audience members.

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