As the major social networks, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, continue on trajectories of seemingly unstoppable growth, MySpace is facing rapid extinction. This week LinkedIn announced that it had reached 100m users globally while MySpace lost 10m users in a month. What does this mean, if anything, for the rest of the world figuring out how to harness the power of the social web to support our personal and business goals?

When people ask me if Facebook or Twitter are here to stay or whether they are greatly over-hyped, I tend to advice that these social networks are just the tools that people are currently using to do what they like or want to do. Facebook, for example, is great because it makes it incredibly easy to keep in touch and to share photos and videos with friends. LinkedIn is great, because it helps busy professionals connect with peers in other companies and in related sectors. Twitter is handy for finding out what’s happening locally and around the world, in real-time.

The place to start for anyone getting started with social media is not with the tools themselves, but with what it is that you like or want to be able to do. I know lots of people who’ve signed up on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc etc and just as quickly cease using them. Why? Because these particular social networks don’t serve a purpose for them in their lives.

Many business leaders feel compelled to have a social media strategy, without really understanding why it could work for their business. This quote from Paul Adams, Global Brand Experience Manager at Facebook is worth reading several times:

It’s problematic that many businesses focus on existing and emerging technology, and not on social behavior. Thinking about platform integration first, like Twitter or Facebook, or technologies first, like what could be enabled by “mobile location” or “real-time updates,” is the wrong place to start. Often, businesses need to step back and consider what will motivate people to use what they are developing, above and beyond what exists today.

Something that I’ve been saying for a while is that human behavior changes slowly, much slower than technology. By focusing on human behavior, not only are you much more likely to create something that people value and use, but you’re more likely to protect yourself from sudden changes in technology.

Understand who your customers are. Understand what they are trying to achieve. Understand their motivations and behaviours. Understand their frustrations. Understand how they currently interact with technologies. Do all of this first, before you start to think about your social media strategy.

When you do that you will probably start to see a fundamental shift taking place throughout the developed world is that the Internet is helping us become more social. When I talk to friends about some of the work I do helping to build ‘community’ online; they tell me it sounds like organising a local parish event. Well it is a bit like that; the world has just got that small.

Building community is not the same as building a social network. Think of social networks as the mechanisms that enable people to connect remotely. Think of communities as people gathering together, sharing and conversing around common interests. Telecoms operators are concerned about becoming dumb pipes, where the real money is made on the content that is transmitted by others through their networks. Social networks are the dumb pipes of communities. Seriously, no one bar the techies really cares how Facebook or Twitter works. We care about the relationships that we have with others with whom we like to share things and chat about stuff that interests us both – which these networks facilitate of course. But the richness is in those communities, not in the technology.

Ask yourself if you really want to try to create the next big social network or whether you want to foster a community around something that lots of people are passionate about. If it is the latter, focus your energies on understanding human behaviour and then harnessing all of the social network technologies to support those human behaviours as you grow your amazing community.