Next week Cisco Systems, a Silicon Valley heavyweight, plans to announce one of its most unusual deals: it is buying the technology assets of Tribe.net, a mostly forgotten social networking site, according to people close to the companies’ discussions.
It is a curious pairing. Cisco, with 38,000 employees, makes networking equipment for telecommunications providers and other big companies. Tribe.net, run by a company with eight employees, has been trampled by newer social sites like MySpace and Facebook.
But along with the recent purchase of a social network design firm, Five Across, the deal will give Cisco the technology to help large corporate clients create services resembling MySpace or YouTube to bring their customers together online. And that ambition highlights a significant shift in the way companies and entrepreneurs are thinking about social networks.
They look at MySpace and Facebook, with their tens of millions of users, as walled-off destinations, similar to first-generation online services like America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy. These big Web sites attract masses of people who have dissimilar interests and, ultimately, little in common.
The new social networking players, which include Cisco and a multitude of start-ups like Ning, the latest venture of the Netscape co-creator Marc Andreessen, say that social networks will soon be as ubiquitous as regular Web sites. They are aiming to create tools to let ordinary people, large companies and even presidential candidates create social Web sites tailored for their own customers, friends, fans and employees.