There’s an interesting article in Bloomberg Businessweek about the rise and fall of Myspace—the social media construct that had hoped to revolutionise the relationship between the music industry and its consumers. In the article, Myspace’s two founders seem to blame their woes on a combination of poorly scaled technology, management missteps, an increasingly negative user experience, and a heaping helping of bad press.
Those factors certainly play a role, however I would posit that even a well-run social networking site–with a pleasant, secure user experience and the press blowing sunshine up one’s backside all day–will still experience the dreaded user fall-off. The author of the Businessweek piece comes tantalisingly close to the truth when he writes the following:
Mismanagement, a flawed merger, and countless strategic blunders have accelerated Myspace’s fall from being one of the most popular websites on earth—one that promised to redefine music, politics, dating, and pop culture—to an afterthought. But Myspace’s fate may not be an anomaly. It turns out that fast-moving technology, fickle user behavior, and swirling public perception are an extremely volatile mix. Add in the sense of arrogance that comes when hundreds of millions of people around the world are living on your platform, and social networks appear to be a very peculiar business—one in which companies might serially rise, fall, and disappear.
— Gillette, Felix. “The Rise and Inglorious Fall of Myspace.” Bloomberg Businessweek, 22 June 2011.
The cyclical nature of social media is not accidental, and is in fact a vital clue to its lack of long-term viability. Back in June of 2006 I wrote about Myspace’s unlikely prospects due to its heavy reliance on circa-1995 models of online revenue generation, i.e. good old banner ads. That piece included the following abbreviated history of social networking, which may help one understanding its previous iterations.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOCIAL NETWORKING
In the early 80s we had telephone “party lines” where eager young teens could call up a central chat line service, create a cutesy little audible profile, and make new friends — realtime — with dozens of other like-minded teens from the same city (or across North America) talking about billowing hairspray-dos, tiger-striped pants, and Queen Street rock bars.
In the late 80s and early 90s we had multi-line bulletin board services like Metropolis and Canada Remote Systems, where angst-ridden young teens could dial in with a 1200-baud modem, create a lengthy personal profile, and make new friends — realtime — with dozens of other angst-ridden teens from the same city (or across North America) typing about unkempt hair, grunge rock and Queen Street goth bars.
In the mid-to-late 90s we had personal web pages and internet relay chat, where you could create a lengthy personal profile, link to all of your interests and pop-culture icons, and make new friends — realtime — reminiscing with people in the same city (or across the world) about the bygone days of tiger stripe pants, grunge rock, and Queen-Street-goth-bars-turned-Starbucks-outlets.
Now we’ve got MySpace, where you can create an intricate personal presence on the web (in 1995-style backgrounds and layout), link to all of your interests and pop-culture icons, and locate — realtime — new friends who share the same interests and possibly geography.
Each of those prior forms of social media have died out over the years. Technology keeps creating newer avenues of interaction, and the generation that initially adopts a tool will in a few short years mature into a different stage of life—and move on to something else that better suits it.
And that, dear readers, is why social media is always ephemeral and never quite the stable, long-term cash cow that everyone wishes it were.
Even though almost all office-dwellers have a computer at work, the working Joes and Janes are not the folks that will spend the vast bulk of their time on social media sites. Most companies require one to complete tasks in order to earn a salary; lollygagging and playing Farmville doesn’t cut it. Thus the folks with vast amounts of time to spend online are (generally) the young; teenagers, college students.
But as the young grow up they, too, get less time to spend online. Work will start eating up larger and larger slices of time, along with girlfriends/wives, children, and so on. If two or three key friends end up using and recommending a new social media vector, one might be more inclined to adopt it. But that vector (whether it is an instant messaging service, Myspace or Facebook) does not always maintain the same level of relevance to the user. As the user ages and his or her life circumstances change, the various attractions of the site will lose (or gain) relevance.
In my teens I had used BBSes (particularly the live chat) to communicate with friends, organise spur-of-the-moment social and sporting events, and so on. Although we moved from BBSes to IRC in the 90s, live chat lost all relevance after my early 20s, because I and all of my friends were working full-time—and, critically, few offices in 1995 had desktop Internet access. I still have ICQ, Yahoo! and MSN instant messaging accounts, but I never use them; they are not earning any revenue for any of those firms. Facebook, too, was interesting initially but quickly became less so. I don’t use its chat function, and the games feel too much like work. Many games want you to check in every couple hours or risk losing progress, and at that point it’s no longer fun—it’s a chore. Nor do I use the Foursquare integration, photo album or event calendar; my use of Facebook has thus declined to that of e-mail substitute. Trying to get people together for a ball game in your teens in easy; most of the people you know live nearby (or at least in the same city). And being teenagers, there are usually few duties and ample free time. But to do the same with adults is something else entirely. Few of my high school friends live in the same city anymore, and most have wives, kids, tons of responsibility, and little spare time.
Unlike brick-and-mortar businesses, social media isn’t selling something you might actually need. So when the early adopters find a service’s relevance fading, it can’t always count on the following generation to take up the slack. A pub can survive for hundreds of years in the same location because people in every generation will want to eat, drink and socialise. Social media can only offer the socialising, and that lasts only as long as the young find it relevant and cool. None have found a way (nor investors patient enough) to recruit successive generations.