Dangerously ephemeral: social networks?

I read an article in last week’s businessweek.com (“Generation MySpace Is
Getting Fed Up” Media
“, 7 February 2016,  the piece articulates what many digihacks like me have been saying for some time now: sooner or later (sooner, probably) the social networks bubble is going to burst.

Apparently, people are beginning to realise that the benefits derived from MySpace, Facebook, bebo, Google Orkut, Friendster and other social networks are being outweighed, and even downweighed, by an ever-growing commercial presence, as well as the growing numbers of human clickers who wish to socialise online, each of whom with his own definition of the term ‘socialising.’

The BusinessWeek article says it clearly:

“The average amount of time each user spends on social networking sites has fallen by 14% over the last four months, according to market researcher ComScore. MySpace, the largest social network, has slipped from a peak of 72 million users in October to 68.9 million in December,  ComScore says. The total number of people on such sites is still increasing at an 11.5% rate, but that’s down sharply from past growth rates. “

Are these signs of crumbling, of yet another Internet “killer app” that will bite the dust before long, leaving disappointed users and heartbroken investors in its wake? I have a strong feeling (here it is, in writing) that the answer to the question is a resounding YES – many social networks are likely to fade into the background, while others might morph into something else, smaller, less noisy, less demonstrative.

Here’s why I say this:

Firstly, social networks aren’t new. We had hundreds of ‘places of convergence’ online over the years, from IRC meeting pods and “newsgroups” to “forums” to “chat rooms”, from text-only, no-personal-profile, no frills digital spaces to fully hypergraphic multimedia emporiums. The principle remained the same – people meet, they communicate, they meet more people, they communicate some more. The rest is a clunky sleigh of hand designed to create assets for marketers and marketing agencies. Sure, 70 million registered users is a marketers’ dream, that is, as long as the users play along with the various schemes designed to get them to “interact with the brand.” But users didn’t play along, at least – not for long.

Late in 2016, Facebook came up with a system called “Beacon”, the premise was as follows: when I buy something, all the people who are designated as my Facebook friends,  get a message telling them what I bought and inviting them to buy the same item.

To (mis?)quote the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin: “wake up and smell the humus!” — The idea is so profoundly lame that someone must have been sleeping at Facebook HQ, because Beacon’s managed to tick off an enormous number of people. Facing growing restlessness among its subscribers, Facebook “overhauled” the Beacon and, most crucially – it made Beacon an “opt-in” (where users expressly choose to be part of the Beacon network) instead of the “Opt-out” method Beacon used previously (in opt-out method, users are part of the Beacon scheme unless they expressly choose to leave it.) By now, however, many Facebookers felt that the network does not have the best interests of its subscribers at heart.

Beacon is only the beginning, Microsoft has a 1.6% share in Facebook, at a cost of $240 million. When one of the world’s largest corporations hold a stake in a company, it’s investment – not charity. At the same time, it’s fascinating to hear what Microsoft Chief Steve Ballmer had to say about Facebook before he wrote the cheque:

“I think these things [social networks] are going to have some legs, and yet there’s a faddishness, a faddish nature about anything that basically appeals to younger people […] there can’t be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That’s for sure.”

For once, I fully agree.

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