Earlier this month, 19-year-old AppHero CEO Jordan Satok was in the BNN studios in Toronto to chat about the impending arrival of Facebook’s Home.
In an article accompanying the video (which has since been removed), Satok, whose business relies on using Twitter and Facebook in order to recommend apps tailored to users’ tastes, revealed, perhaps surprisingly: “I don’t use a lot of Facebook,” expressing a preference instead for Twitter, WhatApp and Kik.
“A lot of businesses are built on the back of Facebook since they have so many users and a wide distribution network,” Satok said. “But if you are hanging out with people on a daily basis, I don’t know what utility Facebook has.”
Satok was 13 years old when he first started using Facebook. For him and his generation, social media is ancient history, as ephemeral as CDs and AltaVista. Does Moore’s law, which posits that computing power doubles every two years, also apply to tech culture? When will the film The Social Network seem as charmingly dated as You’ve Got Mail or War Games? Five years from now? Next year? One week after we’ve become comfortable that Snapchat is the next exciting thing, it is declared “over”.
We could blame this phenomenon on fickle teens, diving out of Facebook the moment their parents and grandparents arrive, as various commentators have suggested. The AARP’s (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) Facebook page grew from 80,000 fans to a million last year, according to Tammy Gordon, vice president of the senior citizen organization’s social media team.
People’s online identities now resemble Chia Pets or Tamagotchi toys that will die unless constantly groomed and fed. The sense of surprise inherent to the “surfing” of the 1990s has been replaced by a hermetic experience…
We could also look at the way the internet itself has changed to explain the big Facebook chill among the younger set.
Internet utopians of the 1990s and 2000s regarded the information revolution fundamentally as one of sharing, freedom and connection. What made the internet interesting and thrilling during the 1990s was the instant availability of almost random, intuitive information. You couldn’t predict what you might end up reading in a day. Links were like trails of breadcrumbs, leading the curious farther and farther afield down a non-linear path. Horizons were broadened.
Now algorithms create lists of favourite books, favourite music, “recommendations” based on what you are already interested in.
What has happened with the rise of the “walled garden” model of social media and algorithms guessing what users are looking for (and serving ads corresponding to their most recent search) is the fragmentation of people’s online lives, as they painstakingly cultivate their tiny plot of virtual land. People’s online identities now resemble Chia Pets or Tamagotchi toys that will die unless constantly groomed and fed. The sense of surprise inherent to the “surfing” of the 1990s has been replaced by a hermetic experience, reinforcing each user’s prejudices and worldview, surrounded by friends, family and comforting lists of cultural references.
Perhaps today’s teens are chafing at the ever-narrowing sense of their online selves. HootSuite’s Ryan Holmes, in an article for Business Insider, points out that not only are social media’s walls not coming down any time soon; they’re being built higher. “At some point, it’s no longer in their interest to be sharing content and sending users to competitors’ sites. The goal instead becomes to funnel users and all of their valuable posts, photos and videos back to their respective services. More and better content translates to more users spending more time on site. And more eyeballs equal more ad dollars,” said Holmes.
As the larger players in social media stake out positions for what Holmes suggests is a pending war, users who innocently posted Instagram photos to their Twitter feed seemingly only yesterday are puzzled as to why they can no longer do so. And the fragmentation deepens.
As compelling as anecdotal evidence for the social media exodus is, though, Facebook’s numbers are still very strong. It has over a billion users worldwide, and while it lost 1.4 million users in the US and 600,000 in the UK last December, its ad revenues have risen 41% over the previous year, mainly the result of the introduction of its Facebook Ad Exchange. It earned $5.32 in average revenue per user in 2012.
With numbers like that, the future is still Facebook’s to lose, but the ghost of MySpace, the social media network’s embarrassing aunt, still lurks.