Until someone figures out how to cram more than 24 hours into a day, people have a limited amount of time. Most of us don't spend 100 percent of it on the Internet. And we don't devote all of the time we do spend on the Net to social networking.
Already, by my count, there are four major social networks: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Plus, with Facebook presumably consuming a disproportionate amount of all time that people spend on these sites. Might there be room for one more big-time contender?
That's the question posed by Chime.in, a new service officially launching today at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, though stories about it started popping up on Monday. I got early access and having been poking about, and...I'm intrigued.
Chime.in feels quite a bit like a beefier Twitter, with hints of Facebook and Google+, but it's not a mere clone of anything else out there. Two features give it a distinct personality:
1. Instead of being organized principally around people, the site is about subjects--any subject that can attract a quorum of folks who like to discuss it online, such as news, tech, hobbies, and sports. The discussions are made up of "Chimes"--wordier equivalents of tweets that can include links, videos, polls, and up to four photos. Chime.in automatically organizes them into "Chimeline" streams based on the topics they discuss, and users--including companies--can create communities on any subject.
2. If you create a community, you can stick ads on it--such as Google AdSense ones--and keep all the money you make. Or you can let Chime.in populate it with advertising and give you a portion of the proceeds. Either way, it's a strikingly different proposition than other social networks, which put ads next to the stuff you create without cutting you in.
Chime.in is from UberMedia, a company best known until now for buying up a bevy of Twitter clients--and for being headed by Idealab's Bill Gross, a tech idea man so prolific that he's more of a parallel entrepreneur than a serial one. (He has founded 75 companies.) Considering that it hadn't even opened to the public when I first visited, Chime.in feels surprisingly fully baked. It's slick, good-looking, and fun to use.
It's not hard to envision Chime.in becoming popular, but that will only happen if it gets lots of something it only has a little bit of so far: interesting content created by real people. The current paucity of such content is only logical, given that the site is just now launching; it'll be fascinating to see if teeming masses of real people flood in and begin sharing their passions in a compelling manner.
I'm also curious whether the profit incentive Chime.in is offering will pay off big for anybody who creates a community on the site, and whether it'll have any impact on the content about which people choose to Chime. (I'm a tad concerned that some people will try to game the system by writing about topics solely to accompany them with Google ads that have a particularly high revenue potential, or will spam the network with auto-generated content.)
So back to the question I started out with: is there room on the market for one more social network?
The more I think about it, the more I think that question may be beside the point. It's possible that Chime.in's resemblance to the major social networks is ultimately superficial. It wants you to contribute meatier, less ephemeral content than the disposable chatter that dominates Twitter. It's not designed for Facebook-style sharing of personal thoughts and photos with friends and family, or for the business endeavors that provide LinkedIn's reason for being. As for Google+, that network is so new that I think it's still figuring out what it wants to be.
If Chime.in captures anyone's imagination, it won't be because it feels like a social network. It'll be because it's a good place to learn about subjects from like-minded strangers. That means it's closer kin in some ways to sites like Ning and Google's Knol than to the social-network giants.
Ning and Knol have both been around for years without proving that it's possible to be a big success at this. (Knol, in fact, started out with a Chime.in-like promise of sharing ad revenue with content creators but quickly devolved into a ghost town; how it's survived Google's recent pruning of minor projects, I don't know.)
I hope that Chime.in turns out to be interesting enough to enough people to have a bright future. I don't need another social network--but if there's a place online with copious smart discussion of topics I care about, I'll find time for it. This site has a shot at being that sort of place.