I’ve been surprised, and amazed, at the rise of the social web over the past couple of years. It’s not the social part that surprises me. It’s the hype surrounding social networking sites that caught me off guard.
The internet has been and will always be a social place. Its social roots can be traced to the bulletin board systems of the mid/late eighties, newsgroups of the early nineties, AOL/Geocities of the late nineties, message boards/blogs from the early 2000’s, MySpace during the mid-2000’s, and most recently Facebook. The trend is fairly obvious, there has always has been a social aspect to the web, and it is always changing and evolving with new players replacing the old.
It’s something I like to call the ‘Nightclub Effect’. New bars open up all the time. If a new bar hits on the right theme and/or attracts the right people, it rises quickly in popularity. When the popularity rises, more people flock to the nightclub, and one of two things happens:
- The nightclub becomes crowded, and the “right people” move on to the next new bar in search of a place where they can socialize without bumping into people that they don’t want to see in a social setting, such as their parents who have discovered their cool hangout spot, OR
- The nightclub tries to capitalize on its success by trying to appeal to a broader audience. In doing so, they dilute the original experience that made the nightclub the hip place to be.
Both cases have one detrimental result – they drive customers away in search of a more private place to socialize with friends that has a “hipper” atmosphere. The result is that the cool place is no longer considered the place to be. Sometimes the demise can be sudden, sometimes it can take a long period of time.
Social media sites on the web follow the same arc, and I believe Facebook, has reached its peak and begun its decline into mediocrity. New platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat are eating away at Facebook’s popularity. I see examples around me based upon how my family uses Facebook. We went through the following phases in using it:
- Discovery: someone tells you about Facebook. You sign up, see people you know, and start connecting with old friends. You don’t know how or why you waited so long to get an account.
- Engagement: after getting setup, you feel like you need to be on Facebook all the time or you might miss something. You get anxious waiting for people to respond to your posts and enjoy reading about and commenting on what others are doing. You are oblivious to how much time you are spending in Facebook.
- Realization: you suddenly realize that you are spending way too much time using, posting, replying and stalking people on the site. You begin to slowly reduce your usage of the site.
- Disappointment: sometimes this occurs before or at the same time as realization, but you are disappointed by the lack of privacy on the site. You regularly bump into people you wish weren’t on the network. It could be old high school friends, ex-significant others, neighbors, or judgmental relatives. You start pulling back from posting and begin looking for another place to gather with your friends where your activity won’t be seen by so many people
- Boredom: checking Facebook becomes a necessary evil just to stay in touch with what’s happening, but you don’t get any enjoyment from it anymore. You spend less and less time on Facebook and more of your time on other sites.
In fact, most members of my family have already hit or are close to the boredom phase. I’ve seen my teenage kids move away from Facebook to Instagram and Snapchat. I’m sure they’re playing around with other social networks as I write. And I don’t think my family is an outlier, I see this as a trend that began 12-18 months ago.
Does this mean the social web is doomed to collapse? Of course not. As I wrote at the start, the web is social at its heart. The social aspect of the web is alive and well, and always will be. In fact, I expect the web to only get more social moving forward. What I do expect to change is how people engage, and I doubt it will be controlled by today’s most popular sites.
So while the social web is fine, the social networking site owners are not. They are in a perpetual game of reinventing themselves, trying new features and testing new formulas in an attempt to maintain a shine that keeps existing users happy while attracting new ones. I don’t think it is a game that can be won over the long haul given the nature of competition and the low cost of starting alternative networks. The fickle nature and delicate psychology of users doesn’t help either
Today’s social networking darlings will succumb to the nightclub effect just like bars and restaurants do in the real world. And just as new bars and restaurants spring up to replace the old, new social networking sites will rise to do the same.