All online social networks eventually fail. Before Facebook, there was Friendster and Myspace — leaders of the social networking space in 2004 (just 10 years ago). Now they are relegated to historical footnotes, or the butt of some joke.
Facebook, too, will fail, even if it doesn’t look like it today. And that’s not due to any specific failing of Facebook, but rather of human nature and the psychology of online identity management.
Here’s why all social networks inevitably fail.
Identity management is what we all do, every day, consciously or unconsciously. We do it in-person, in face-to-face meetings at work, with our friends, and yes, even with our partners and lovers.
But we do the vast majority of it consciously online. Identity management is simply the curation of the details of your life — what you choose to share, when and with whom. We’re doing it when we share a link on Facebook, or a video on YouTube. What network do we share this with? Who will see it? What will they think of us because we shared it?
When social networks are small and have small amounts of people in it — maybe just a few trusted friends are connected to you on the network — you spend a lot less time on identity management. You know this small group of people, and you know how they feel and think about things. You know if you share a dirty joke with them, they’ll laugh — not get offended.
As an online social network grows and we gain more and more friends on it, it starts to include co-workers and friends we don’t know as well. Maybe we add a few old acquaintances. And even a family member or two. Suddenly, we’re no longer sure how they might take a dirty joke, or when we share a political link. Will some in the group be offended?
So we start to self-censor and share less. When in doubt, instead of hitting the “Post” button, we hit the, “Nah, better not” button and don’t post that picture we find hilarious, but others may be offended by. Facebook already knows this, based upon its own research. In that study, researchers found that “71 percent of the users typed out a status, a comment, or both but did not submit it. On average, they held back on 4.52 statuses and 3.2 comments.”
Other independent research backs this up. As an online social network grows, we’re less likely to talk about gay rights or politics on the site. That’s the finding from Jang et al.’s (2014) survey of 442 college students when asked whether they talk about these issues on Facebook. The more friends a student had, the less likely they were to talk about these things.1
Identity management takes time — a limited resource — to do and to do well. There comes a point of diminishing returns that each of us recognizes when we reach it. Then we start to update their status less and less often, and check the site less and less often. We become less engaged.
When identity management becomes too much effort or too much of a timesink, we start to spend less and less time on any given social network. And that’s what’s slowly happening on Facebook. Because of its immense size, you don’t see this reflected in the current stats2 — nobody wants to be the first one to give it up completely.
Facebook’s latest 10K filing shows as much — slower growth in the U.S. Monthly active users have fallen off, rising only 4 percent in 2013 (from 8 percent the year before) in the U.S. and Canada, the largest advertising market for the company.
But the metrics they don’t share are just as important as the ones they do share. Facebook doesn’t share, for instance, how much time each user spends on the site — a key metric used on every other web property today. I suspect if they did, we’d see a downward trend.3
People are becoming much less engaged with Facebook over time. And teens — as they usually do when it comes to digital media — are leading the way.
To try and hide the fact that teenagers are leaving and not using Facebook nearly as much anymore, Facebook says the teen data is “unreliable” because, well, teens can lie about their age when they register with the company.4 Umm, okay. But buying this line of BS in their 10K would mean we would have to ignore the fact that in this modern age of behavioral ad targeting, Facebook should know exactly who is on their site at any given moment… If they don’t, they’re incompetent.
So What’s Next?
Are simple messaging apps — which aren’t all that different from the text messaging built into phones for the past decade — really the “next big thing?” Casey Johnston, writing over at Ars Technica, suggests we’re all moving over to messaging apps instead of clinging to the old-style social networks. That’s indeed where the teens are all hanging out — on WeChat, Vine, Palringo and such.
But these are primarily apps for chatting and sharing pics in real-time — the profile you fill out on them is pretty minimal. And nobody spends too much time curating that profile, or updating their “status” on such apps. Instead, they’re used to communicate with a small group of friends. Gamers also use them to communicate in real-time about their team-based game. And some teams at work use them to increase teamwork and real-time communication (for instance, a sales team always on the road).
Meanwhile, big social networks are doomed to fail from the onset, especially ones that encourage you to “friend” people who you don’t really know and aren’t really friends. Another way to look at this is that every social network has a defined lifespan for most people where the benefits of using it outweigh the costs for a period of time, and then the costs start to outweigh the benefits.
And it is at that point that people start using it less, and move on to a new one.
Another take: How we ruin social networks, Facebook specifically
Das, S. & Kramer, A. (2013). Self-censorship on Facebook. International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM) 2013.
Jang S.M., Lee, H., & Park, YJ. (2014). The More Friends, the Less Political Talk? Predictors of Facebook Discussions Among College Students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. doi:10.1089/cyber.2013.0477
- And the average number of “friends” each student had on Facebook? An astounding 894. [↩]
- At least not the ones Facebook chooses to share with the public. [↩]
- We asked Facebook about this particular metric, but they did not respond to our request before publication. If they do respond, we will post the metrics in the comments area. [↩]
- But then a sentence later, they acknowledge that according to their own models, daily active users “among younger U.S. teens had declined.” [↩]