Gina Bianchini helped usher in the age of social media nearly a decade ago when she co-founded Ning, a social networking site that launched the same year as Facebook.
But even Bianchini, a serial entrepreneur who has spent more than 10 years in Silicon Valley, finds herself at times overwhelmed by the growing number of social media sites now competing for her time, updates and energy. She helped raise the beast -- and now she faces the challenge of taming it.
“With all the sharing, I find that I wake up and I’m checking this and I’m checking that and at a certain point, it’s like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It’s high fructose corn syrup rather than high quality rock sugar,” Bianchini said.
She will not go so far as to say that social media fatigue has already set in among online audiences, though she likens the trend to a recession: It’s a phenomenon that can only be concretely quantified once it’s been underway for some time, she said.
“We are definitely at a point where the supply of things to do online is at a dramatic overcapacity relative to what we can actually do in our lives as human beings,” Bianchini explained. “When you have technology that has an infinite supply of possibility and you have finite time, at a certain point, people shut down. They simply cannot handle anything else.”
Hardly a day goes by without an aspiring Zuckerberg launching a fresh social media startup that promises new solutions to the problem of sharing photos, meeting strangers offline or redeeming discounts for local restaurants. Even industry heavyweights like Walmart, Toyota, Apple and Disney are attempting to develop their own alternatives to Facebook and Twitter, with mixed success.
Bianchini argues that this new generation of social networking sites, which are born into an already crowded marketplace, will be doomed if they offer nothing beyond an outlet for people to connect and post updates. Her point is not that heavyweights like Facebook and Twitter are on their way out, but that to succeed, up-and-coming social media companies must prove they offer their users valuable services that will improve their lives in concrete ways. In the new Web 3.0 reality, users who have grown accustomed to sharing now want to be shaped -- online and off.
“The important question is how do you actually take social software and make it work for you, as opposed to the expectation that you’re working for social software,” she explained. “The more time we spend in this stuff, the less it becomes about broadcasting what I’m doing. It’s about giving me inspiration and things to do. It’s about helping me find more things to do so that I can take them and act on them, rather than just sharing.”
This principle is at the core of Bianchini’s most recent venture, a social media site called Mightybell, which provides a platform for people to create and share step-by-step guides for offline adventures. Individuals author DIY roadmaps for experiences that range from staycations and cleanses to interior decorating and starting a business. As users complete the steps, they can interact with their “fellow travelers” -- other people participating in the activity -- correspond with the creator of the guide, and contribute their own suggestions, photos and commentary.
“I know that social software will be the most powerful driver of our generation in terms of how people make decisions, whether it's what product to buy or how we're going to get out of the governmental financial problems that we're in," Bianchini said. "Mightybell’s motive is to be best in the world at motivating people to act.”
Mightybell represents one interpretation of the second-generation social networks Bianchini described and highlights a burgeoning breed of startups that use online platforms to catalyze offline actions. Apps like Banjo, Sonar and Grubwithus all use the web to link people together, though they ultimately aspire to having people put down their phones and talk to one another face to face.
“It’s not that people don’t want online conversations, but at a certain point in time you’re like, ‘Great, okay, we’ve talked about it,’” Bianchini said. “I think the next wave is transitioning online conversations into real world experiences and actions that have an impact on the world around you.”
Mightybell marks Bianchini’s third stint as an entrepreneur –- before co-founding Ning, she helped start Harmonic Communications, an online advertising company –- and she counsels female founders to look past difficulties they may encounter because of their gender.
“We’re not doing anyone any good by talking about some of the unique challenges of being a woman entrepreneur. If you’re a male entrepreneur, you’re faced with a certain set of challenges. If you’re female, you’re faced with a potentially different set of challenges,” Bianchini said. “The most important thing you can do is say, ‘I don’t care what the challenges are, I’m going to tackle them, take them down, and keep going where I’m going.’”
“Don’t think about yourself as a woman entrepreneur,” she added. “Think about yourself as an entrepreneur.”