Social networking has become like, with apologies to Bill Watterson, Calvinball. Players invent their own rules. And, when someone comes along and starts imposing rules to ‘improve’ the game, players simply relocate and create a totally different game, and one that probably doesn’t even involve a ball.

This was all brought home to me with the news today that ITV is in financial trouble, and came hand-in-hand with the curiously unsettling feeling of my having successfully predicted something. I don’t have by any means an impressive track record as a futurologist.

A couple of years back, ITV bought the Friends Reunited social networking site. My instant first thought, and doubtless countless other people’s instant first thought, was: “Why?”

What a dim-witted acquisition. It really seemed like the network had missed the boat. Several boats.

Friends Reunited was exciting nearly a decade ago, but it had a once-only function: everyone quickly got in touch with anyone they want to be in touch with, and then ITV bought it. Even writing it here, it seems redundant to discuss: it’s so obviously wrong.

Compare too News International: no sooner had Rupert Murdoch snapped up MySpace than the public appetite evaporated. These days it seems so clunky and inconvenient. [It was eventually sold off at a reported $500m loss]

But why did it seem so obvious that Friends Reunited was the wrong thing for ITV to invest in? Well, it seems to me that people have a fundamental desire not be sold things. Perhaps more accurately, they don’t want to feel like they’re being sold things. It’s self-respect, isn’t it?

And we’ve seen what’s happened with that other News International-related corporation BSkyB. Someone’s come along, half-inched the football, pimped it, and sold it back to us. Now it’s a weird-looking surgically enhanced bimbo swaying around and behaving ever more erratically in an effort to feed its money addiction. Meanwhile its vital organs are rotting away.

It comforts me to imagine that the latest generation of media consumers has got wise to this cynical pimping, and has rejected it.

Twitter is the more convenient Facebook is the more convenient MySpace is the more convenient Friends Reunited.

It’s Calvinball: the general public is relocating to something else, somewhere else, anywhere well away from the corporations. And, until the corporations come up with a new formula, the public is in the lead, Q points to 12.

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