What is the lifespan of social media? Having been working in digital media for 18 years now, I’ve seen so many social media applications come and go that I wonder if there’s a construct through which we can view social media to will help us understand its sustainability.
Social media have been the drivers of digital media since long before we called it “social. “ Bulletin board services were one of the first applications online, even before the invention of the browser and the World Wide Web. BBS services were first commercialized by CompuServe and then Prodigy, and finally massively by AOL. AOL helped make email the most widely used social media, simply because email is so easy to forward to a friend. Marketing campaigns built around bulletin boards and email became known as “viral marketing” in the 1990s.
Of course AOL became so big, built up on its social media functionality -- not as a content publisher -- that it famously purchased Time Warner. AOL also grew its business with “Greenhouse” investments in brands like iVillage and Motley Fool, each of which built their audiences by leveraging the time spent online in chat rooms and discussion boards.
After the browser became the dominant internet access platform, AOL lost its cachet and the cool people, the ones who were the most active in the discussions and building content for AOL, moved on to a second generation of businesses like GeoCities, the site purchased by Yahoo for $2.4 billion. That is billion with a “b” back when a billion dollars was a big number. GeoCities blossomed and then wilted, followed by Second Life, MySpace, The Globe,(there were many others). Now, of course, we have Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Pinterest, Instagram etc. etc. etc.
Why have so many social media ended in oblivion? I think there is something baked into the structure of social media that provides both the fuel for their rise, and then sucks the air out, dousing the fire that burns hot before their demise. This is not to recommend that publishers ignore social media. But I do suggest you understand where they, and you as publishers of original content of economic value, stand.
Social media, when they get their positioning and functionality right, can grow like wildfire because the audience not only builds the content, but does the marketing for the business too by inviting friends. When publishers became savvy about search engine optimization -- learning that in-links from social media could boost their search traffic -- they magnified the social media boom, giving first My Space, then Facebook, and now Twitter and others, a big boost, by promoting them to promote themselves.
Fast growth sometimes erupts when influential or cool people begin using a social medium followed by their friends and fans. As more and more fans and friends of fans follow, the coolness of the new medium wears off and the influentials go elsewhere to invest their time and build content for a different site. It works much like the night-club scene, where first the elite and fashionable discover and populate a new club, but when too many of the common people start arriving, the hipsters move on.
When I was working with iVillage we learned that advertising placed in the social environments like chat and discussion boards achieved low engagement rates. And introducing commercially sponsored messages directly into the discussion polluted the natural social conversation, driving away the audience. Now Facebook and Twitter are struggling with this very problem: how to generate revenue from their audience that is commensurate with their size. I suggest they never will. The more they commercialize the environment, the more they’ll drive the most influential and active participants elsewhere. This can already be seen to be happening. The nail is already started in the coffin for Facebook it just hasn’t been driven home yet.
Will Facebook decline to zero like GeoCities did? I doubt it. Certainly not as fast. Mark Zuckerburg has done an unusually good job of making it useful. I believe it will remain a place to post your vacation pictures to your family. But Facebook and Twitter face a difficult problem: Will the bulk of their audiences stay with them when there are cooler places to surf? Will the coolness that is required to maintain their user loyalty survive the drive to “monetize” it? And will advertiser interest survive the inevitable decline in the cool factor? Advertisers have a pretty consistent track record of chasing the next cool thing. What do you think?