Let’s note right off the bat that the headline doesn’t proclaim social media to be “dead.” The number of times and ways in which things on the internet have been declared deceased only to rise again has made writing such digital obituaries tricky. Podcasting is not dead, and neither is blogging, but MySpace really has left us.
It is a different thing entirely to ask if we’ve passed social media’s Golden Age. Facebook and Twitter aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but executives at both platforms are, if we are to believe press reports, doing a great deal of recalibrating and soul-searching—and development work to address problems that they clearly did not foresee.
Technology and adoption curves
Anyone who has spent any amount of time in marketing or public relations work has most likely at some point been introduced to the Rogers adoption curve. It looks like a standard bell curve, with innovators embracing new technologies the earliest. As time passes more people are introduced to or adopt the new tech, and stages progress through early adopters, early majority, late majority, and then the laggards finally come on board.
When I worked in grassroots PR programs, one of our main objectives was to shift the adoption curve to get the early majority on board more quickly. Attributing the x-axis on the curve as the passage of time, what we hoped for was rapid adoption of the product we were promoting—many of which were innovative and new to the consumer market.
The formula was to get more people excited about the product quickly, spurring interest. Essentially, we were looking for products to go viral.
Market saturation, friend sharing fatigue, and S-curves
A Harvard Business Review piece in 2012 titled “Throw your life a curve” discussed S-curves and innovation diffusion as ways to view the learning process and how this could be applied to personal growth. S-curves are another way of depicting adoption, with the y-axis representing market penetration as a percentage.
In the article they plot out Facebook’s adoption on an S-curve to demonstrate the rapid adoption phase of “hypergrowth”—but also noted that the saturation point was either imminent or had already been reached.
At some point, growth slows. The same pattern will hold true for almost any platform or product out there, whether it’s Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Google Home, or Alexa: at a certain point, most of those who want to be there or own that are there already.
Consider the case put forth by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic. His piece titled “Retweets are Trash” argues that Twitter would be less angry and less repetitive if we could just shut off the retweets. He has implemented this change in his own account and finds the platform more valuable and interesting now.
What struck me about this change is that we see the retweets of people we follow—so, what Madrigal is essentially saying is that he has tired of the regurgitation of stories…from people he selected. Some of the changes Facebook has made to prioritize content from friends and family echo this element of dissatisfaction; we apparently want to see content that is actually created by our friends—not what they think of something published elsewhere.
This is a potentially monumental shift to pay attention to by those in communications—content shared by friends is proving to be of lesser value than content created by friends.
If we are exhausted by repetition to the point that there’s a case to be made for shutting off retweets, and Facebook is trying to figure out how reduce the visibility of some content, I’d argue that the novelty of social networking has worn off.
Reality is setting in
A review of recent news also seems to indicate that the euphoria surrounding social media is gone and a more realistic view is taking hold. In part this can be attributed to studies conducted that are looking at effects beyond connections or platform growth.
Instead, we are learning how quickly false news spreads on social channels, of connections between excessive social media use and depression, and that it can make us spend too much money. Some of the world’s largest advertisers are drawing down their social ad spending and many more are demanding transparency and actual data to support ROI.
There are a number of reasons why we haven’t seen the rise of any platforms to challenge the dominance of Twitter and Facebook—a fact that is notable in and of itself. It was just a decade ago that we were watching MySpace, Second Life, and Friendster rise and then fall—the landscape shifted rapidly. This just isn’t the case anymore. Interestingly, the handful of newer platforms that have garnered a following, like Instagram and SnapChat, don’t make it simple to mindlessly re-share content.
What we are likely approaching is an era of tactical and practical use. There almost certainly will be some drop off from people who have tired of social media’s constant presence in their lives. Most active users will stick around, but might change how they use platforms, either by tweaking their experience as The Atlantic’s Madrigal did, or by reducing their exposure by spending less time on site.
What does this mean for communicators?
Much of this post is speculative, but paying attention to patterns in news coverage that are emerging is important. We know that social platforms are under increasing regulatory and governmental scrutiny around the world. It’s also clear that executives at these companies are grappling with how best to respond. In trying to address concerns without damaging their cash flow, they appear to be doing the developmental equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.
We’re seeing more people questioning what we’ve gained—and what we’ve lost—with the rise of social channels. Importantly, there are actual studies testing these very questions, with sobering results.
Social media has changed how we communicate, this is true. Will things change again? It’s almost certain that the answer is yes. Communicators have always had to be adaptable. Strategies and tactics will change. The best we can do is watch, stay on top of trends, and be creative in our approaches for clients.