Sunday 26 May 2013

What is the Half Life of a Social Network? The Problems of Digital Baggage and a ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ Philosophy

It is a little over a year since Facebook went public in a c.$90bn IPO, and I find myself amongst a growing group of people questioning what the future holds for ‘The Social Network’. Social media is a new industry and the rules of competition are being discovered as we go along. And the same things that caused Facebook’s meteoric rise may end up making it irrelevant.

Online technology companies (by which I mean social media as well as services such as search, email, blogging, etc…) face the unenviable situation of being violently pulled in two directions at once. On the one hand is the imperative for constant change: that constant struggle to capture the attention of the general public while hundreds of competitors are trying to do a similar thing. In this light we see firms as locked in an arms race, repeatedly adding features and revising designs in a bid to stay fresh. On the other hand, there is the need to provide consistency and reliability in the service being provided. Users become accustomed to the current set of features, so any changes will tend to cause discomfort and lead to inevitable outcries.

In a way this tension is faced, in some form, by all businesses. But in the online tech industry it is particularly acute, because there are such low barriers to entry, and thus there are so many entrants trying to displace whoever is leading at any point in time. There is also an implicit premium on mere ‘newness’ as trend-setting users like to explore new services in order to be ‘at the forefront.’

In most industries, the most common problem is resistance to change, an inability to adapt to changing user needs and changing social pressures. It’s my strong feeling that in social media, the opposite problem holds. Companies like Google and Facebook are pioneers at experimentation, trialing possible changes with randomized subsets of users, and implementing the ones that appear to work on a wider scale. This is epitomized in Mark Zuckerberg’s famous management philosophy: “Move Fast and Break Things.

The problem is that while this philosophy may be suitable for a small or mid-sized start-up, it suddenly becomes a lot more dangerous for a large corporation. With every change that is pushed through, Facebook risks alienating some fraction of its users, and of those, some fraction is likely to disengage (see my comments on community pages in 2010). Take, for example, Facebook’s algorithm for deciding what gets put on your Newsfeed. This is one of its most important pieces of technology, as it determines both how users interact with each other, and how advertisers interact with users. When this algorithm is changed, it will always have the effect of giving some posts more attention and other posts less attention – and the people or businesses getting less attention will be irritated. I noticed this last year, when Facebook changed the algorithm at the same time as it introduced paid-for “promote this post” options, earning the moniker 'The Biggest ‘Bait N’ Switch’ in History'. I’ve also noticed another change in the last few months, which has led to my newsfeed being filled with less relevant posts (and more advertising than before) and my own posts getting less attention than they used to. I am already changing my Facebook engagement habits as a result, and using Twitter more as a source of interesting links.

This excess of change is far from the only risk. Two others are worth highlighting. An article in the Financial Times last week focused on investor disquiet over FB losing its ‘coolness’ as a result of people’s parents joining. Young people are the key audience for social network, and tend to direct posts to their friends, and the growing presence of older relatives is reducing the perceived freedom of the space. I’ve seen an example of this myself, when one of my friends posted about having a ‘too many drinks’ – and minutes later their father making a rather embarrassing comment on the post, along the lines of ‘I thought you were more sensible than that.’ This is all just rather off-putting, given that the original appeal of Facebook in its early years was based around it being restricted to peers at the same university. Private social networks, such as Microsoft’s Yammer, could begin to capture the attention of users looking for a more exclusive forum.

Then finally there is the issue of digital baggage. This is something I’ve realized recently: much of my activity on Facebook in the early years after I joined in 2005 has left a very large, quite personal digital trail. Furthermore, since I created the content, joined groups etc., the architecture of FB has changed, as has its privacy policies. This makes it rather difficult to see who has access to what. And even if I correctly manage my privacy settings today, there is no guarantee that privacy policies won’t be changed in the future. To give concrete examples, I discovered several photo albums which I thought were ‘friends only’ were actually reachable by the general public with a simple google search. Also there was a set of ‘groups’ that I set up for University colleagues (which are now years out-of-date) but were visible to the general public. These examples struck me as disconcerting, and I realize now that the only way to ‘leave that baggage behind’ would be a make a fresh start with a new social network – for example Google+. I’m not going to do that just yet, but I expect other people will. The Facebook timeline was famously glorified in this video as a way of having a record of your entire life in one place. But that idea is actually quite scary. I, personally, do not want that record in the (potentially) public domain, and I doubt that I’m the only one.

During its initial rise, the trend of Facebook’s subscriber figures was exponential growth. To look at the graph, if it referred to a share price it would definitely look like a bubble. Of course it is not a share price, and so I don't expect it to ‘pop.’ But I think user engagement with FB will decay. However much effort it puts in to try and stay relevant, it is nevertheless likely to be displaced by newer start-ups offering cool new services. The proportion of cognitive real-estate it can command will decline as other services manage to win more. My message to Facebook investors is therefore, get out while you can.

Agree? Disagree? Please leave comments below


  1. I agree with what you say here- My 'Hand-Made by Bee' page posts hardly get seen by any of my 'likers' now. It would seem FB wants me to pay for this luxury.

    I am getting quite annoyed at the amount of advertising that is slap bang in the middle of my newsfeed too. It's right there in the middle of my family and friends updates and I don't like it at all. Hardly any of the posts in my newsfeed are by my friends, but from the various pages that I 'liked'- usually the bigger companies who can pay to promote their posts and get them out there. This means that I 'unliked' those pages and disabled the rest from being shown. The ads, sadly are still there.

    The strange thing is that I find when we complain about this sort of thing, they usually always say the same thing- It's a free to use service and with that comes ads. Its as though we should feel humble that we are able to use FB for free and that we must put up with the ads if we want this to continue. I just feel there is a limit, right? All down the side was okay. Being able to connect with my favourite brands, services, restaurants is also okay- this sort of thing led to me buying stuff on occasion. But in my newsfeed? Not okay.

    1. Completely agree! I also find the adverts in the Newsfeed utterly pernicious. At least on Twitter the posts which are paid-for are clearly marked as 'promoted' but in the Newsfeed it's all very opaque. We're just left to guess which posts are paid for and which are genuine. And I'm also disappointed that I don't receive as many 'Hand-made by Bee' posts as I used to!

  2. I agree too but there are ways and means, ad blocker plus being my personal favourite.

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