Pardon the Captain Obvious moment… but a conversation with a colleague sparked a thought or two that I thought I'd share.  We were sitting in my favorite coffee/gelato shop in Austin (much less the U.S.) talking adoption and growth of the major social networks:  LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, etc.

Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon of social networks isn't the people who join.  It's the people who don't.  Think about it — there is a large segment of people in our lives who we really want to see on social networks.  Industry influencers, industry leaders, members of our families, close friends who are too busy to create a profile on a social network, etc. are often the very people we want to see there.  All too often, they aren't available.

Those of us who enthusiastically adopt social networks really get bummed… even take offense… to the people who elect not to participate in the social networks where we spend time.  We can't share details about our lives with each other passively when important people don't create accounts.  We can't clue them in passively on a social network.  We can't share photos (at least without Snapfish or some other evil "password-firewalled" system), we can't share mundane details of our lives, we can't share regular updates on our status.  Hell, I get pissed off all the time at the fact that I have ~300 Facebook friends and ~300 LinkedIn contacts, yet only 25 people to follow on Twitter.

And why is it that people don't adopt the major social networks quickly?  And why doesn't everyone jump in with two feet once they are there?  I think everyone should jump in, interact, and make the most of the opportunity to interact with and find old friends.  But we all approach social networks with different motivations.  A different level of appreciation for new technology.  And most importantly, a different perspective on the importance of "private" information and that which we're willing to share at the risk of discovery by others.  To some extent, your personality dictates how enthusiastically you adopt social networking and how much you choose to share details on yourself with your friends (and those who pretend to be your friends).  And nobody is right or wrong depending on how much they use the various services that are available.

But I don't think this is just a segmentation problem for social networks… it's a potential Achilles heel for growth and future adoption.  For one, there is a clear segment of the customer base that doesn't see the value in creating a profile/account.  It's a big segment that sticks out like a sore thumb more and more every day.  Second (and perhaps more importantly), the range of applications that an entrepreneur can develop is permanently reduced if 10% of the people log in every day and 50% of them simply refuse to expose personal information online.  This makes it *a lot* harder to build useful social apps — something I've proclaimed as being inevitable in the future.  The flip-side is also inevitable… it means that "fun" social networks (i.e. those that are designed to be fun & nothing more) won't ever be able to bridge the gap to truly become useful.

And if the "fun" social networks can't bridge the gap, can they really become anything more than what they are today?  Sure they can add incremental users, but will people ultimately migrate away from Vampire chomping and Nation building and all the nonsense we do today when we're bored.  Can we really be engaged for years and years with these apps?  Can these apps continue to thrive if they are constantly replacing old users with new adopters?

I guess what I'm asking is:  have "fun" social networks jumped the shark?

I look at something like LinkedIn, and I see something that has tremendous value for a variety of purposes:  sales, networking, current & future business opportunity.  Perhaps that is what Bain Capital thought when investing so heavily in the social network this past week.  I think this was a great move.  The biggest dollars flow when business needs are met… to illustrate that point, two things from my personal experience:  1) I used LinkedIn several times to hire people for roles within Microsoft in my last year there, 2) the biggest checks I've cashed in 3 months of my return to entrepreneurship have come from solving specific business problems.  There are hundreds of applications that could be built to unleash the value of what LinkedIn currently has to offer.  LinkedIn features an extremely large community of users with a common interest (maximizing career/business opportunities)… and nobody in the social networking business has a value proposition that comes remotely close.

LinkedIn could totally screw it up at this point… and I think they need to be careful for reasons I've stated before.  But what is the lasting value of the "fun" social networks?  After the fun is gone, what will people really do and where will they spend their time?  My guess is that they'll do what they can to improve their personal outcome.  And without a major change on the "fun" social networks, they won't be biting other chumps for long.