Can Social Become Personal Again, Or Is Too Late?

Facebook was in the news again recently following reports that it was worried about a "context collapse" on social media -- a trend that is seeing people becoming less likely to post or share things related to their personal lives. Although "sources familiar with the matter" noted that overall levels of sharing remained strong, many users are increasingly uploading or cross-posting content from other sites or platforms rather than original posts about themselves. In short, photos and status updates are giving way to articles, news stories and content from third-party sources. What was once a personal newsfeed is now much more of a, well, regular newsfeed.

In part, such a shift is an inevitable consequence of social networking having been around for such a long time. With some of the major platforms now more than a decade old, lists of "friends" are likely to include acquaintances, work colleagues and a whole jumble of other people with whom a user has little real-life or regular contact. It’s not hard to see why some people could therefore become less keen on broadcasting personal information -- an area where messaging apps, with their smaller, more controlled and more personal audiences, stand to be obvious beneficiaries.

Our long-term data on the motivations that people have for using social media sheds further light on this issue. Across the 34 countries where we survey Internet users about their attitudes and behaviours, it’s options such as sharing photos (-16%), sharing updates (-32%) and sharing opinions (-33%) that have seen the greatest decreases over the last two years. And perhaps tellingly, it’s “staying in touch with what my friends are doing” that has experienced the biggest fall of all; as people stop sharing, major social networks are no longer the window into other people’s lives that they once were.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s "networking for work" that has seen the biggest jump (+27%), helping to explain why Zuckerberg and Co. have been keen to develop Facebook At Work. Interestingly, however, FOMO ("Fear of Missing Out") has also increased in importance; arguably, that’s a reflection of social networks having evolved into breaking news platforms in their own right and being the places where people might first become aware of a story or trend before clicking on a link to investigate it in more detail. For some users, networks have effectively transitioned into gateways to content. 

In many ways, of course it doesn’t matter why people are using a social network as long as they keep visiting. If we take Facebook as the example, it can serve relevant ads to any user, regardless of whether they are uploading their own posts, clicking on links shared by others or simply checking their newsfeeds for updates. Even so, the fact that Facebook is reported to be concerned about the issue suggests that it wants to reverse the trend to stop the site from becoming a place dominated by third-party content and articles rather than the personal updates that helped it to become so popular.

That’s a clear context for why it has pushed the “On This Day” feature so heavily, and why it has linked a user’s mobile photo-stream to its app (encouraging them to post any photos they have just taken). It doesn’t matter whether the content in question is new or recycled, as long as users share it.

More than anything, however, Facebook’s reported desire to reinvigorate personal sharing could be a way to stop rival services from profiting from these changing behaviours. If people are increasingly using messaging apps or smaller sites to share personal information then its own Messenger and Instagram sites might stand to profit, but so will names like Snapchat. Evan Spiegel’s app is already claiming impressive levels of video engagement -- which aren’t far off from Facebooks in terms of views per day, despite a much smaller user-base -- and our data shows that the popularity of Snapchat among the trend-setting 16-24 demographic is still burning strongly (especially in key markets across North America and Western Europe).

What’s more, the fastest-growing motivations for using social media are good news for other names in the social space; it’s not hard to see how fear of missing out is an obvious strong-point for Twitter, or how work-related usage could bring further growth for LinkedIn. It’s in this context that we have to view its efforts to push the expansion of Facebook Live as well as videos on Instagram: essentially, both of them offer new ways for people to share personal content within their newsfeeds.

Of course, some context is crucial here. Our data confirms that Facebook remains by far the most popular social network. And as people are still visiting in their droves, its ad-supported revenue streams will remain buoyant. Even so, expect to see more announcements over the coming months that will help it to get a bit more personal with its users.

2 comments about "Can Social Become Personal Again, Or Is Too Late?".
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  1. Steve Baldwin from Didit, April 19, 2016 at 12:52 p.m.

    I blame the decline in organic sharing on the precipitous but largely undocumented rise of Futilitarianism. People quickly become aware -- after only one or two posts -- that nobody outside of a tiny algorithmically-decided slice of one's actual associates sees the posts. They investigate the "Boost Post" options and decide it's not worth it. They still use Facebook, but appreciate that the chances of anyone actually reacting are -- well about 2 percent. They unconsciously convert to Futilitarianism -- the credo that social media is futile -- not altogether uninteresting -- but largely useless for any purpose other than idle chatter with a diminishing group of associates, unless, of course, you pony up a few bucks -- which is a bit of a ridiculous requirement in most social (non-commercial) contexts. 

  2. Chuck Lantz from, network, April 19, 2016 at 5:06 p.m.

    Very interesting and educational comment, Steve.  In some ways, I see similarities between internet social media and the odd Citizens Band era. Though the history of the rise and fall of CB radio was extremely short when compared to today's social media, I think there are some valid comparisons between the initial promise and the eventual dumpster binning of the whole idea. 

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