To everything there is a season

The Life Cycle of Social Networks

As people reel from their dawning understanding of the roles played by social media giants Facebook and Twitter in the 2016 election, they have begun to pull away from those platforms. Twitter was on the wobbly edge when it lucked into becoming the platform of record for Donald Trump. That helped with fading relevance. But people take for granted that Facebook is too big to fail.

With 2.2 billion monthly subscribers, Facebook seems invulnerable. Even people who hate the platform say, “but where else can you go?” And yet. And yet.

Human memory is perhaps shorter than ever. With attention spans having been driven toward zero by the very same social media hoping to capture their valuable time and eyeballs, people forget that platforms have a life cycle. It has always been thus, and ever will it be. Nothing is immutable.

Remember America Online (AOL)? AOL once had the weight, in both finance and influence, to pull off a merger of equals with the venerable Time-Warner publishing empire, making AOL founder Steve Case a billionaire. Where’s AOL today? It’s still there, but only as a feeble legacy platform. My mother-in-law, who is 92, uses AOL for email.

How about MySpace? MySpace was once king of the world. Now, it’s a mouse, seeking refuge in distributing media content.

Perhaps a few of you have heard of The Well, one of the original social networks. It was based in the San Francisco area and started as a dial-up network, which encouraged local participation (you couldn’t hang online for long with the long-distance rates of the time and not rack up some serious charges). The Well still exists, but has been sold downriver again and again.

What drove these former giants to the edge of obscurity was not technological obsolescence. Mostly, with varying success, they tried to keep up in that department. No, it was the life cycle that got them.

Here’s how it goes: a new social medium is launched and people find it. If it works reasonably well, fresh subscribers are delighted to meet new and interesting people and begin conversations. Not long after that, the pooheads find it. They come in and start harassing people, trolling them, being obnoxious, and exploiting features and weaknesses of the platform to assemble and call on flash mobs to multiply their effect.

Pretty soon, the place becomes unbearable. The good people start to leave, seeking greener pastures. What’s left is a dystopian world that even an advertiser couldn’t love. Then, the network starts to die.

Now, Twitter and Facebook are two different animals. They are not going down the same exact path. But both are experiencing the later phases of a social network.

Facebook was once all about empowerment, Arab Spring, bringing a voice to the downtrodden, and connecting people around the world. A happy image. Now, it’s all about oppression of people by dictators, disinformation, creepily targeted advertising, and exposure of user data to the wrong crew.

And the company, desperate to keep a good thing going, has tried to ameliorate its shortcomings by changing algorithms and policies and hiring more people to police its platform. The key goal is not to jeopardize the vast flow of advertising dollars.

But the damage is already done. First of all, the new tame version of the platform is boring compared to the old Wild West one. I find mostly humble-bragging, self-promotion, and vacation pics in my feed. Second, people are turned off by what Facebook has done to them. There is no other place where someone can theoretically meet up with 2 billion others, but in reality no-one can keep up with more than a few dozen in real relationships anyway. People’s attention is in tatters.

Of course, broadcast mode allows one person to send to many, and a large platform is desirable, but on the other end, many of us are tired of being spammed by people in broadcast mode, people who don’t give a flying loon who we are, who just want to count us among their followers.

There are some alternatives, like LinkedIn, now owned by Microsoft. It’s more for professional contacts, and it’s also mostly about self-promotion, but many people could find a lot of their contacts there.

Facebook and Twitter have tried to make their platforms sticky, hanging onto people's message streams, photos, address books, and anything else they can ingest, but the relationship is strictly voluntary, and when people get turned off to a platform for any reason, they abandon ship in droves.

Technology Analyst

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