Have we lost the plot on social networking?

I’m on Facebook. And I don’t want to be.

If I had my choice, I’d completely and utterly scourge my Facebook account from the web, with its horrible user interface, problems with privacy, and extremely annoying “gifts,” “pokes,” and “scams.” (Oh, wait, that last one didn’t need the irony quotes.)

But I’m on it because everyone else is on it. It’s a poor way to communicate, but even my technophobic mother has a Facebook account. My friends use Facebook, rather than Picasa or Flickr, to share their photos, and of course I’d need a Facebook account to access them. None of my friends can agree on a single, unified instant messaging service – except for the buggy and unreliable one that comes with Facebook.

Let’s face it. Anything Facebook does, another web service somewhere does better. But that’s not the point – the point is that Facebook is the default. Some of your friends have Twitter feeds. All of them have Facebook accounts. Metcalfe’s law holds true with a vengeance – the only reason, it seems, that Facebook has value is because of its large user base.

Everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook. It’s a business model based on tautology.

Which is, in many ways, an unstable position. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Facebook was the second runner up to MySpace, who also had a lot of user interface problems and privacy issues. When the reason you are #1 in a marketplace is because you are #1 in the marketplace, it doesn’t take much to topple that empire.

You’ve probably heard about the Diaspora project which will be open-sourced on September 15th – a social network that is distributed, so no one person can own it and no one company can sell the private information of it. And you may have even read the Telegraph editorial by Milo Yiannopoulous that suggests that Diaspora is doomed from the start because Facebook is just simply so dominant that it cannot fail.

Allow me to propose a counter-argument, and that is that for Diaspora to succeed, it merely needs to provide a better alternative to Facebook. Social media is a fickle beast; in 2005, everyone was on Slashdot, no one had heard of Digg, and in 2010, Digg is being slowly overtaken by Reddit. In 2007, everyone was on MySpace.

And yet, there’s no doubt that social media networks do have an uphill battle to climb. Apple’s music-based social network Ping has been online less than 24 hours, and already it’s clogged with spam.

That’s probably the worst part about social media in 2010. I used to work as a social media marketer. When I started, in 2006, the new media landscape was a very different place, and I was able to argue that it didn’t matter how many twitter followers you had, your best bet for getting people to listen to what you had to say was to make what you had to say worth listening to.

Nowadays, when I look over job postings for similar positions to the ones I had, they all focus on the analytics of social media. Click through rates, number of followers, pagerank. I’ve always thought that the most important part of new media was creating stuff people want to read/view – the numbers and analytics follow from that. It burned me out when I actually spent three months on a job which wanted me to somehow create those analytics out of thin air when there was no real content to offer people.

That may have even worked, except that overzealous social media marketing had poisoned the well. The local pizza place in Austin has a banner up that says “Follow us on Facebook & Twitter.” I don’t go to my pizza place to whip out the laptop or iPhone and follow them on Twitter. I go to the pizza place to get yummy pizza. It’s oversaturated. In 2006, being socially connected online made a company or organization stand out. In 2010, it’s cliché. Being on Facebook is no longer a guarantee that you’ll get tons of traffic.

Even a year ago, a site that got on Slashdot, Reddit, or Digg would get tons of traffic quickly. It’s still a boost, to be sure, both to pagerank and to viewership, but it’s much less of one today. It’s just that everyone’s submitting to social networks, there’s an awful lot that poisons the well, filling it with mediocre crap. The really good stuff is having more trouble shining through the muck.

When I was a social media marketer, I was very selective with what I submitted to social networks. Not everything I wrote was worthy of being promoted; and I didn’t want to spam the social networks with information that may only be relevant to a few people in the audience. Unfortunately, not everyone thought as I did, and like the tragedy of the commons, social networking was ruined by people who were told to “blog everything,” “tweet everything,” “facebook everything,” and so on. It’s not their fault, this is just what they were told to do by so-called media marketing leaders who claimed to know better.

Now we have Digg 4.0, which enables publishers to simply have their articles auto-submitted via the RSS feed. I can’t imagine how this could possibly make things better, and according to a poll on Mashable, neither do Digg’s readers.

Social networking is entering a new phase, I think… and not a happy one. Social media has for years struggled to get mainstream acceptance, and now it has it, with all the positives and negatives that that entails.

[Header picture source: Flickr (CC)]

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32 Responses to Have we lost the plot on social networking?

  1. The argument that I read here is that there is no longer a competitive advantage in using social network – it's become a cornerstone medium, like radio, TV, and newspapers have been. Yes, I'd say that's true.

    The volume level continues to rise, no question.

    As for dethroning Facebook, there's now a huge switching cost because of the time and effort people have put into notes, conversations, photos (especially the photos, I think), etc. If Diaspora ever takes off, it will have to be dead simple to use. But it won't dethrone Facebook because there are enough people who think it's good enough, just for the tautological argument that you describe: everyone's there.

  2. The argument that I read here is that there is no longer a competitive advantage in using social network – it’s become a cornerstone medium, like radio, TV, and newspapers have been. Yes, I’d say that’s true.

    The volume level continues to rise, no question.

    As for dethroning Facebook, there’s now a huge switching cost because of the time and effort people have put into notes, conversations, photos (especially the photos, I think), etc. If Diaspora ever takes off, it will have to be dead simple to use. But it won’t dethrone Facebook because there are enough people who think it’s good enough, just for the tautological argument that you describe: everyone’s there.

  3. Facebook in not bad per-se.

    It allows for quick distribution of links and stories (I always do with GAS ;) ), limiting repetitions among your social group (ten people sending the same link on MSN, dozen e-mails with "Look at this, lol!"), while keeping all comments toghether.

    Plus, it's a handy tool to avoid lots of pointless noise.

    How? Simple… here goes my recipe for Facebook happiness! ;)

    Add very good people to a group named A
    Add seemingly good people to group named B
    Add people you might want to chat with to group Chat (if any… it's really kinda pointless)

    Set your posting filter (by clicking on the Lock icon when you try to publish something) to "Custom" and specify two groups, A and B.
    Set it as the default rule.

    In the chat, set to only appear online to group Chat.

    If you really think you might want to broadcast personal stuff on facebook, just lock those posts to group A.

    This way, you can add as friends every pesky bothersome persons… you will want to do that. They will think you read their posts and be happy with it, but you will promptly "Hide" them from your live feed (on their posts, click on the small X in the upper right corner).

    They will also think you share your thoughts with them, but won't see anything from you.

    Result: no more bothering you! Not through mail, not on the phone, not anywhere.

    Just wishes for your birthday… that's hard to avoid. :)

    After few minutes hiding every bothering application (anythingVille, Fortune Cookies and similar), you will have a pretty tidy tool to share useful links and stories with people in your group.

    Look… I really hate people writing "Here goes another day…", I tell them to stop and eventually hide them. But what's left is a good crowd.

    Facebook it's not the final step… but it's decidely a step in digital comms evolution.

    Diaspora and similar projects are bad and rotten at their core: they target the need of few privacy concerned maniacs who envision a Securebook that won't ever be.
    A complicated, distributed, opensource, bugged and technically more complex clone of a damn link sharing system.
    A stupid, simple, working for half a billion people one. :)

    Stuff you put online ain't private. Won't ever be.

    What can be done and I'm sure will come (eventually) is a multi-provider, decentralized structure where everyone will choose their storage buddy… facebook, google, diasporoids, myspace, whatever… and friends will be cross structure. But first, we have to let FB burn their first comer money. :)

    Not everyone needed a website, but Geocities & clones let them have one.
    Not everyone needed a blog, but Blogger, Livejournal, etc let them open one.
    Not everyone needed a personal page, an online collection, a document repository, a shoutbox, a digital showcase, a dedicated web radio.

    Not everyone needed multi gigabyte e-mail boxes… but here they are, so that those who are too lazy to organize can pile up junk and avoid learning good practices.

    And by any means, no one needed an online farm. :)

    These are all steps… people get excited and get to know things… things they will eventually abandon or transform. In the process, they gain knowledge and perspective. They move, at least.

    Facebook is a primitive and simplistic try at a Life Logger… looking at how crowds move and what they actually love, better ones will come. New tools will arise.

    What's really important, in my opinion, is keeping an eye on each and everyone of those.. live in them, tame their vague usefulness… understand why the lemmings go down that specific cliff.

    We are geeks… we see this one cliff and laugh at them… but it would be oh-so-arrogant to think it's the only cliff. :)

    I hope my curiosity always clicks on me with the umbrella tool, saving little child me from becoming a full fledged suicidal rodent. In what ever way that's gonna happen. ;)

  4. And yet you still share this wonderful article…on Facebook. Where I found it and would not have otherwise.

  5. Kevin this is brilliant. Andy Warhol said:"In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 seconds." Was he foretelling Social Networks? We will continue to look for the sexist applications to evangelize. I am convinced that is is part of our digital DNA and digital evolution per say.

    I once posted a tweet; "What if Andy Warhol had twitter?" (or any platform) I expected it to go viral. Not one RT:)! Well what if he did?

    Your article is a great read and I am going to post my tweet again. You never know.

  6. Great article… and I too hate that I have a FB account. I want a better alternative!! I do not think Diaspora is it, the demo I saw was basically an aggregation of all your other social media posts??

    I want a PRIVATE social network. I heard of another new private social network that sounds like it'll be the next big thing. They say on their splash page that they combine the social product UI of a social network with the privacy of email. Love that….! It's called JAFOU (Just a Few of Us), much more clever name than Diaspora!

    Anyway, you can sign up for an invite to their beta when they launch. I am spreading the word bc I want them to launch sooner rather than later. If you like what you hear, help out and spread the word!!!

  7. I'm proud to say that I no longer have a Facebook account. I deleted it for good a few months ago and haven't looked back. I did the same with MySpace (but that's not such a big deal because who uses MySpace anymore anyway?).

  8. What a bunch of crap.

    Facebook is easy to use, there's virtually no ads beyond what you sign up for, you can control your privacy to a comfortable extent, you only share what you post or what your friends post about you, the events system is very helpful for people (like myself, who can't be bothered keeping tabs on things over a day in front of me).

    I want corporations to know about me, that's how the things I want get made, so that I can buy it. If there's no market, it doesn't get made. Okay, so it's mostly silly for a pizza place to advertise that it's on Facebook or whatever, but that's just because your pizza place doesn't understand business very well. They're just doing what everyone else is. It doesn't cost them anything and it might bring them customers, for some unseen reason. But for other businesses, it might be essential that they're on Facebook. Clubs and Magazines do fairly well out of being on Facebook and keeping a following. Websites used to be the same thing, now everyone has a website, whether it's useful for their business or not.

    I have no arguments towards trying and using an open-source social media site like Diaspora, and to be sure, I'll try it, and if it's better, I'll use it. But Facebook is better than MySpace, not because "it's number one because it's number one", it's because of it's uniform design and interface effectiveness. Otherwise, how did it become number one in the first place?

    Things that are considered "important to view" get viewed because they get shared the most, otherwise it wouldn't get shared. That's how the internet has always worked. It hasn't changed just because you've noticed that that's how it works. What you consider important, might not be considered important by that many people, so it doesn't get viewed. Deal with it. Don't blame Facebook or the way the internet works.

  9. What a bunch of crap.

    Facebook is easy to use, there's virtually no ads beyond what you sign up for, you can control your privacy to a comfortable extent, you only share what you post or what your friends post about you, the events system is very helpful for people (like myself, who can't be bothered keeping tabs on things over a day in front of me).

    I want corporations to know about me, that's how the things I want get made, so that I can buy it. If there's no market, it doesn't get made. Okay, so it's mostly silly for a pizza place to advertise that it's on Facebook or whatever, but that's just because your pizza place doesn't understand business very well. They're just doing what everyone else is. It doesn't cost them anything and it might bring them customers, for some unseen reason. But for other businesses, it might be essential that they're on Facebook. Clubs and Magazines do fairly well out of being on Facebook and keeping a following. Websites used to be the same thing, now everyone has a website, whether it's useful for their business or not.

    I have no arguments towards trying and using an open-source social media site like Diaspora, and to be sure, I'll try it, and if it's better, I'll use it. But Facebook is better than MySpace, not because "it's number one because it's number one", it's because of it's uniform design and interface effectiveness. Otherwise, how did it become number one in the first place?

    Things that are considered "important to view" get viewed because they get shared the most, otherwise it wouldn't get shared. That's how the internet has always worked. It hasn't changed just because you've noticed that that's how it works. What you consider important, might not be considered important by that many people, so it doesn't get viewed. Deal with it. Don't blame Facebook or the way the internet works.

    • I've always thought Facebook's shortcomings were exaggerated. It's not perfect but it does just about everything I want it to do. A lot of people don't realize how customizable it is.

  10. OH MY GOODNESS. Thank you. I am in the mire of people panicking about social media, and now that they know the buzzwords it's like marketing hell. I have some owners that are telling me to violate the TOS, or make people "take down that awful blog post"…. while other teams have marketing and PR people that want zero parity, don't want to be copied on emails, and rather ignore it.

    I did some math for you. Red Bull's facebook page has a population bigger than Chicago or London. The Twilight Page has a large population than greater LA or Calcutta. The interaction is less than a millionth of other meaningful metrics. No one is there, no one trusts it… and I heart you for helping alert people to this.
    http://www.hrabaconsulting.com/blog/2010/09/01/fa

    Read that, I would love your comments. Thank you so much for your article. Cheers.

  11. "I’ve always thought that the most important part of new media was creating stuff people want to read/view – the numbers and analytics follow from that. It burned me out when I actually spent three months on a job which wanted me to somehow create those analytics out of thin air when there was no real content to offer people."

    Amen.

  12. "I’ve always thought that the most important part of new media was creating stuff people want to read/view – the numbers and analytics follow from that. It burned me out when I actually spent three months on a job which wanted me to somehow create those analytics out of thin air when there was no real content to offer people."

    Amen.

  13. It's so much more complex than that. Your reaction is like saying "Because I don't like cell phone or internet providers, I will not use any."

    It's impractical for discourse to be this myopic.

    • No. It's like saying, "I do not like cellphones nor the Internet, I will not use them". And that premise is perfectly sound, and (believe it or not) practiced daily by individuals and entities who have decided they no longer want to be at the mercy of something they so strongly dislike, for no other reason than "everyone else is too".

      You claim it's so much more complex than that, but the truth is that's simply your perception of it. Seriously, I hope you some day find a way to cease being a part of something you loathe.

      Myopic, indeed.

      • Do you think I wrote this article? I never said I loathe it. I said it's more complex than your simplistic response.

        By being this narrow, you negate (not just for yourself… but for *me*) the entire world of positive and powerfully compelling reasons to be online.

        This is the single greatest revolution in human communication ever, and the futurists and engaged want better tools, and pray that the world doesn't simply shrug their shoulders, give up, and say "I guess this is the best it can get".

        Your comment as "guest" provides little compelling reason to think you are here to partake in any real discussion, as much as antagonizing others and chuckle to yourself behind the anonymity of your screen.

        Your position makes no sense… do you love facebook and wish people stopped bad mouthing it? Do you hate it and wish you were not on it? I mean… why the hell are you even in this post?

        More than likely… it's to get some sort of reaction, etc that makes you feel better about who you are, etc. Enjoy that.

  14. I'm not sure that there ever was a competitive advantage from using social media for the great, great majority of participaters (was this ever more than a hook for the many people trying to make a living touting social media snake oil?), but the noise has long since drowned out any meaningful social interaction on these tools. Now more than ever, social means "in the physical presence of" — at least to me. Facebook et al have taught me one lesson: many people I know – but not very well – are less interesting than I imagined.

  15. Have 'we' lost the plot on social networking? uh, yea man, wake up and smell the stale coffee. I'd even say your article is already quite a bit dated (well written and good illustrations of your ideas though).

    Someone could have written the exact same style of post on television-newspaper-anything. Just hold a sign that says:

    "If you build it, they will spam".

    The fact is that psychology, not technology is still the breadwinner in any form of media or marketing and it will be an exponential amount of time (if ever) before technology catches up to the common denominator between the two.

    And as far as The Face Book goes… I'm pretty sure Burger King proved how truly shallow rooted let alone married to a social network people are. We're a species who would delete each other for a freggin whopper, and then like the cows we just ate herd over to the next field.

  16. I deleted my account, and sent a letter to my friends 1 week later, that I have deleted my account. I'm having some extra time that I can call friends or grab a cup of coffee with some one I like to see in. Good experience; at first looks weired though that the lifestyle that we used to have before, seems so new after deleting facebook.

  17. "… I’m on it because everyone else is on it."
    It does not matter how much Facebook lacks, it is the dominate tool. The unfortunate part is that grandfathers, church women, and the completely computer illiterate are using Facebook now (which is something MySpace never achieved), which means Facebook is not going anywhere soon, and the money is going towards advertisement and marketability and not usefulness.

  18. I recently tried running down a small study/research on facebook, asking all my connections whether they ever went back/regularly checked on the hordes of fan pages/groups they like/join on facebook every other day.

    And guess what, I didn't get a single reply. This simply let me to believe the same thing 'Everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook'.

    75% of the users on facebook do not give a damn about anything else except perhaps sharing photos, which could be done better on picasa/flickr as you pointed out.

    Back here in India, social media is still in its nascent stages, with a lot of cos. trying to create a hoopla around it, even after knowing that most of the cos. out here (atleast with an indian origin) are tech illiterate and won't easily buy the idea of marketing their product/service on social networks.

  19. I recently tried running down a small study/research on facebook, asking all my connections whether they ever went back/regularly checked on the hordes of fan pages/groups they like/join on facebook every other day.

    And guess what, I didn’t get a single reply. This simply let me to believe the same thing ‘Everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook’.

    75% of the users on facebook do not give a damn about anything else except perhaps sharing photos, which could be done better on picasa/flickr as you pointed out.

    Back here in India, social media is still in its nascent stages, with a lot of cos. trying to create a hoopla around it, even after knowing that most of the cos. out here (atleast with an indian origin) are tech illiterate and won’t easily buy the idea of marketing their product/service on social networks.

  20. Very enlightening article. You are absolutely right about social media. Every ad talks about hiring people who can increase followers, pageviews etc. Nobody talks about, we need good content writers.

  21. The pinnacle of irony – at the bottom of this article, is a line "Sharing is Sexy!" followed by links to all the major social networks to spread this around.

  22. The pinnacle of irony – at the bottom of this article, is a line "Sharing is Sexy!" followed by links to all the major social networks to spread this around.

  23. Im not on Facebook. Never have been, never will be. Screw what others are doing. If they want to share a photo they can email it to me. Want to give me a "status update?" They can call me. As a developer and IT professional I will never touch that scourge.

  24. I agree with the thrust of your article.
    I deal with facebook for real estate clients-we put them there mainly because they want to follow the crowd. Does it generate business for the client? No

  25. Just being there on facebook and throwing all you write is useless, I would advice all to be selective and the key is to share interesting updates that your audience can relate to or use.

  26. As per my experience in social networking website, there are huge resources in social networking website where we can save and share our knowledge to others easily and quickly.