Is the trend in social media really moving towards building stronger networks? Or is it really just weakening them? If we look back at the last several years from the dawn of the “social networking” revolution in the early- to mid-2000s, we will find an interesting trend: social networking models have gone from being defined by strong social bonds to progressively weaker ones. The main feature of the pioneers — Friendster and MySpace — was the “friendship”. People were “friends” and kept in touch mainly by proactively checking out one another’s profiles.
Facebook changed that by introducing the concept of the “Newsfeed” (which went on to become known as a “timeline” or just “the feed”). Facebook’s newsfeed was the Friendster and MySpace killer. With this feature, users no longer had to visit their friends’ profiles to check out what they’ve been up to. Instead, stuff happening within our social network got pulled into a single information stream. The newsfeed racheted up the level of convenience of maintaining a social network. No longer did we have to call upon friends’ digital spaces. We just needed to scroll through our newsfeeds. I think this is when social networking became “social media”. With the advent of the Facebook newsfeed, the Net had truly come into the space once dominated by TV and radio. We now “watched” our feed the same way we soak up TV and radio content — passively. Our newsfeeds had become digital receivers as much as we had all become mass communicators.
The democratisation of the race to publish interesting content was on, spurred by additional features pioneered by Facebook — “liking” content and “sharing” them. While these provided an even more convenient — and non-committal — way of interacting with “friends”, it also provided a scoring mechanism to measure the popularity of content appearing on our timelines.
Up to this point, social bonds on the Net were a two-way street. To be linked in a manner that allowed us to view and be alerted to one another’s online content, we had to be “friends”. This meant that the bond had to be mutually agreed. Enter Twitter. Twitter introduced the concept of the one-way social bond: “following”. On Twitter, building a network was a more challenging effort. You didn’t invite people to be “friends”. You encouraged people — including strangers — to follow you. When a user follows you, you need not follow back.
Twitter’s breakthrough was to clearly delineate content publishers and content consumers (to its credit, Facebook at the time already had a similar concept in its Pages product which required users to build similar one-way networks around it by accumulating a subscriber base of “fans”). The concepts of “followers” and “fans” removed the need for publishers to maintain a strong connection or commitment to their audience. On Twitter, the line between content publishers and content consumers on social media finally solidified.
Google, coming late into the scene also implemented a social networking model that fundamentally mirrored the Twitter model. There were no “friends” in the Facebook sense in Google Plus — only followers. You followed other users by “adding” them to your “circles”. On Twitter and Google Plus, the closest thing to a “friendship” (in the Facebook sense) are pairs of users who mutually follow each other. Facebook, in the last couple years, has also implemented a “follow” feature enabling its users to see updates from users who are not necessarily “friends”.
The most recent generation of social media apps encourage even shallower social bonds and increased protection from commitment expectations. These new systems seem to draw their appeal from the new “hookup culture” that defines today’s social scene. Apps like Tinder and SnapChat limit social networking to the barebones — no expectations, no commitments, and best of all no history.
The guiding philosophy that drives the appeal of these apps is “so many people so little time”. The same psychology that drives channel surfing on TV and radio drives users of Tinder, where users browse other users (in contrast to browsing content on one’s timeline on older social networking platforms). On Tinder, other users are channels. Don’t like what you see? Change the channel. Judgments are summary, quick, and harsh on Tinder as the only thing to go by is other users’ profile photos.
Content on SnapChat, is even more fleeting. Users send each other stuff and are able to set a self-destruct period. Recipients have access to this content only within that period after which these are deleted — including, as the SnapChat owners claim, all traces of it on their servers. This makes the app ideal for selfies and other sorts of content that serve as the primary currency for youth-oriented fast-paced social networking.
Where will these trends lead to? Ultimately, nobody knows. Not even the experts. Looking back to the early days, nobody foresaw that social networking would dominate the Net’s mass consumer base. Even when the old dinosaurs of social networking — Friendster and MySpace — started dominating the earth, the value of a “newsfeed”, nor even the mere notion of it, will not have been fully appreciated until Facebook came of age. Perhaps the landscape is overdue for a new disruptive technology. It’s been more a long time since truly new stuff had emerged. The last seven years had seen no more than mere me-too products and incremental product upgrades coming out of Silicon Valley.
What that overdue new new thing will be is anybody’s guess. The only thing that is certain is that it will address some kind of primal human need that is already staring us in the face today but which nobody had yet come to realise is begging a new consumer product. In hindsight, for example, we can easily say that a “newsfeed” is the turn-of-the-century’s killer app because it addressed a basic human need to keep abreast with the goings-on of its social network. But that’s easy to say today because we’ve got after-the-fact evidence to prove it and make it so glaringly obvious.
And who knows? Back in the 1950s and 1960s, smoking was widely-regarded as “cool” — even recommended by doctors — even as its addictive properties and risks to health were beginning to be evident. Today, social media is as “cool” as cigarette smoking was back then. And, guess what: its addictive properties and risks to health are also becoming evident even while “experts” and “mavens” extol its benefits to society at every opportunity to grab hold of a mike and face a camera.
One thing’s for sure. Just as the people who were left laughing all the way to the bank back in the days when smoking was cool were the tobacco companies, it will be today’s producers of new apps and consumer devices and those who create content for it that will ultimately reap the most profits out of this stuff.
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