Social networking and UGC-will it live up to projections?

A cursory glance at the CTIA I.T. Wireless & Entertainment 2007 keynote schedule tells you everything you need to know about the impact of mobile social networking and user-generated content services: When Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz enjoys the same headliner status awarded to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and music legend Quincy Jones, it's safe to say social networking has arrived. The projections are lofty: According to a new study released by market analysis firm Juniper Research, the number of users frequenting mobile chat and dating services is expected to grow from about 40 million in 2007 to 260 million in 2012, with revenues expected to exceed $1 billion by 2010.

Right now that's just wishful thinking, but clear progress is being made. In July, Nokia acquired photo-sharing service Twango, and two months later debuted Mosh (a.k.a. "Mobilize and Share"), the first mobile social network created by a handset maker. Late September also saw Google purchase mobile social networking platform Zingku. AirG, which has 100 wireless operator partnerships in over 40 countries and touts itself as the world's largest mobile community, announced earlier this week it has surpassed the 20 million unique user benchmark. Rival mobile social networking services, including 3guppies, are planning significant announcements at CTIA. And is it sheer coincidence that both Moskovitz and Ballmer are keynoting given Microsoft's rumored interest in snapping up a stake in Facebook? Time will tell.

What remains so compelling and unique about social networking and user-generated content is that the core consumer behaviors--e.g., texting and snapping cameraphone photos--are already commonplace among the subscriber population. It simply seems like an easier sell than so many other next-generation mobile services and applications. The problem is that no one has figured out the formula for making money: Since ponying up $1.6 billion for UGC poster child YouTube last year, Google has yet to turn a profit on its investment. No wonder News Corp.'s Fox Interactive Media division launched a free, ad-subsidized mobile version of MySpace--after all, the revenue opportunity isn't the content itself, but the premium messaging that follows as users discuss and share that content. That opportunity promises to be the subject of much old-school networking at CTIA, and a discussion that continues long after the event draws to a close. -Jason