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)]