As I leafed through A National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our World, the greatest book of all time, I rediscovered the diagram you see at the top of this page and discovered a tagline that makes the social webs make more sense:
Home Is Where the Niche Is
We tend to think of social networks in terms of lifecycles. One rises and flourishes, then it is killed off by an insurgent competitor. We draw neat diagrams showing MySpace started to die as Facebook sprang to life, etc.
But the reality is more complex. The social applications out there now build atop each other and tens of millions of people belong to several networks, even if they don't really notice. In a given day, I will end up at Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Quora, Skype, Yelp, Pinterest, and Rdio, not to mention email and all the implicit social networks that you can find searching with Google.
My usage is probably a little extreme, but the point is that we don't belong to just one social net. Just as in real life, we spread ourselves between a variety of locations, finding value and fulfillment in building our own personal social media ecosystem.
Each network has built on the success of the others. Twitter didn't need to build out intense profile features because people could be found at their own websites or Facebook pages. I now use Twitter as my ur-social network. Whenever I go to a new service, I can find the people I follow on Twitter there and select the right subset. Others can use LinkedIn or Quora to do the same.
And even if services don't technically connect to each other, we're building a social network that stands outside (and beneath) the applications currently available. This is the social media biome (to overextend the metaphor) and many ecosystems and niches can exist within it.
Which brings me back to Instagram and Twitter. As one of my Twitter followers, Liz Kelley, aptly put it, "Instagram is homey; Twitter is noisy." So, on the weekends, I tend to swim in Instagram world, where people are playing with their kids, not the Twitterverse where people are reading essays about politics.
The key thing to realize, though, is that this isn't a bad thing for Twitter. Twitter and Facebook and all the rest can continue to do what they do. I use Twitter on every single work day. It's invaluable for idea generation, public thinking, and story promotion. I will continue to use it. But it doesn't have to (and probably can't) be all things to all people at all times. Twitter can remain the simple and incredibly useful tool that it is without trying to replicate Instagram.
Call this a leftover 2012 prediction: like a forest getting older, our social network usage will continue to diversify. And that's a good thing. The many overlapping networks will come to occupy personalized niches in the social biome. Some will flourish; many will just survive; others will die. But to the extent that they find their own niches instead of duplicating what others are doing, the individual network and the biome will flourish.