When we think about the future of social media, it's natural to think about future generations as well. Research firm Ampere Analysis found that people aged 18-24 had significantly changed their attitudes in the last two years#. Generation Z are considering quitting social media, that was also the result of half the people U.S. marketing firm Hill Holliday surveyed.
Surveys respondents say they'd like to give a more realistic representation of who they are. Social networks are a showcase of lives that don't exist. To gain likes and followers people need to position, trick, and lie. Migrating from Facebook# to Instagram# provides little relief#, in social media, it's easy to be singled out.
A new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults finds that a majority of Americans across a wide range of demographic groups use Facebook# (except 65 and older). The findings however highlight conflicting attitudes toward social media — harder to give up, say some; not hard to give up, say many others.
Beyond analytical evidence, each of us is somewhere on the scale — weighing the value we receive and give on one side, and the influence we exert and (maybe) how we're influenced by others on the other.
The attention problem
While social media has enabled anyone to reach anyone else on the planet, the truth is that we tend to pay attention more readily to people who think and act like us. Nature has given us a compelling reason to do that — nobody survives alone. Humans band together, it's our instinct.
But it's also a necessity. The complexity of modern life requires collaboration for success. Research has demonstrated that diversity enhances our ability to explore new ideas#, allowing us to see a problem from different points of view. More variety in how people think about an issue is a strength.
However, a meta-analysis of 108 studies and more than 10,000 teams# found that diversity hinders consensus. When we're trying to get things done, we want to put away our differences, and work together. Convergence is more useful to the final output. The answer might be to have moderate diversity#.
Moderation is compelling to businesses. Amazon's principle number 8#, “Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.” But what about the public at large? It might depend on their bias for action.
Quick reactions to what looks and sounds different, not in a funny way, happen when a bias for action is compounded by our natural tendencies to pay more attention to people like us. Why go with like, we shy away from different.
But impulse is only half the story. Social networks algorithms exacerbate the problem. They serve up what we're supposed to pay attention to, and send us down rabbit holes before we have time to reflect. it all happens seamlessly.
Social networks' dilemma
Social media has made it easier to find people to friend and follow; it's made it harder to identify people who deviate from what we already like and favor. Within the inevitable echo-chamber, it takes extra effort to include new perspectives in our reading and learning. Not impossible, it just requires more work.
The New York Times published a less than flattering profile# of Facebook's role in exacerbating the problem. The story, one of many in the last couple of years, seems to have hit a nerve. That's because it records a pattern of behavior at best described as shocking.
According to people present, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg yelled, “You threw us under the bus!” at Alex Stamos, security chief for sharing information about the social network's failure to contain Russia-linked activity on its site.
No leader would relish being called out for delaying, denying, and deflecting in a crisis. The NYT calls attention to a consistent pattern of allowing the use of its algorithms to target ads. It's a pattern that started raising questions 10 years earlier.
Our dilemma is do we use social media or not? Do we throw away the potential benefits of getting the word out on our work and business, meeting new people, discovering resources, with the bad aftertaste of privacy concerns, tribal behavior, and time wasters?
The impact of social media's business model
Humans pay attention to patterns, and awareness of the drawbacks of social networks is reaching a high point. Social networks are starting to pay attention — loss of users means potential loss of revenue. But loss of reputation can have larger implications.
Nice words are a weak substitute to action. Apple CEO Tim Cook says, “We’re not going to traffic in your personal life. Privacy to us is a human right. It’s a civil liberty.” Apple's product has always been a closed system. The company's privacy statement says:
We’re committed to keeping your personal information safe. That’s why we innovate ways to safeguard your privacy on your device, why we’re up front about how we personalize your experience, and why we equip developers with the best tools to protect your data.
In 2011, security researchers found that the iPhone kept records of everywhere you go#. They even set up an open-source application to let users check what location data is shared#. But as Cook said in Brussels earlier in the year#, Apple's business model doesn't depend on selling customer data.
Zuckerberg says, “We Get It,” in an internal memo, but acting on it may be more challenging for the company. Facebook's brand is about “Making the world more open and connected”. The majority of Facebook revenues are generated through advertising, monetizing attention is the product.
Facebook leverages Aggregation Theory#, a concept by analyst Ben Thompson. As Thompson says, “Aggregation Theory is a completely new way to understand business in the Internet age.” The Internet enables zero distribution costs, zero marginal costs, and zero transactions costs.
Which means that “the most important factor determining success is the user experience”. Social networks operate algorithms that make it easy to share, taking away friction and taking advantage of the reward mechanism of human psychology. Their business model, where the suppliers are also users, demands increased levels of engagement.
The attempted conservation of attractive profits bleeds into the rest of the web through programmatic advertising. The habits of language, speed, and volume of one-dimensional avatar interactions bleed into real life.
Social media impacts not just our online experience anymore, it impacts our experience of the world. So much so that we've come to expect quick results and scale, without a thought as to the network effects that need to be in place for it to work that way.
Why social media is not going away any time soon
Facebook is still well-established in the habits of many, including businesses large and small. The recent revelations about the social network are a tipping point for more individuals and some businesses that were on the fence. They raise questions about the frequency and intensity of social network use.
Taking a break from social media because it's distracting has also become a common explanation. 44 percent of the young people Hill Holliday surveyed quit or considered quitting social media to “use time in more valuable ways”#. Some say social media causes anxiety, but they also fear missing out on their friends.
The answer may be using a combination of messaging platforms, niche social networks and subscription sites and email updates. People want to connect with like-minds on topics they're passionate about. Topical sites like NextDoor and Houzz, for example. Highly-curated information is viewed as valuable.
On Facebook, while the Pages reach continues to go down, Groups are thriving. They numbered 620 million in 2010#. It makes sense, with a focus on community they invite more frequent interaction and discussions. New moderation tools support the work of community managers/group administrators and help keep the interaction civil.
Social media has brought about many changes. What doesn't change is our gregarious nature, which compels us to want to be part of what is happening. Twitter's evolving tagline# is an interesting window into the phenomenon. “What are you doing?” became “Find out what’s happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about.”
We want to know what's going on, and add our 0.2 cents. Why secrets, gossip, and rumors are still going strong. Everyone predicted that the rise of social networks would decrease the number of events and attendance would thin out. But the opposite has been true. We have even more events on more topics now.
People want to meet in person. There's no substitute for being physically in the same room. The value of rubbing shoulders with each other, learning through experience are as old as humankind. Hard to compete with the energy levels and value of good events and the influence of membership communities.
… but demand is changing
Increasingly, those communities are built on the Web (and not on Facebook). Social media is not going away any time soon. But demand is changing. The Washington Post reports that Facebook lost 4 million users in Europe in the last six months and growth has plateaued in the United States#.
We are changing how we view the relationship between value and influence. When what we value is based on our values, behavior changes. When enough people make the change, they form a new community, find a new hangout.
In a community, you're a person again, not an avatar. User sentiment, not regulatory action, is a more effective instigator or change, says Thomson#. “Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world. In fact, it is the only way it ever has,” says Margaret Mead.
A few million users might be a drop in the bucket for Facebook, but just enough for making a change. If we want a better future, we'll need to create it. We do it by solving human problems. Community is a good environment for collaboration.
[image via Pixabay]