The Death Knell for Social Networking Sites: Mainstream Usage

by Mack Collier

Shopping

The first online portal I joined was Prodigy in 1991.  It was actually a great experience, there was just no one there.  But the few people that did use the mostly text-based service were very friendly and it wasn’t unusual to interact with someone on one of the pseudo-message boards and share your home address with an invitation for others to write a letter.  Different times.

From there I went to CompuServe in the mid-1990s and AOL soon after that.  Both CS and AOL were also internet providers, and at the time it was some outrageous amount, like $25 for 10 hours online.  For a month!  I often spend more than 10 hours online in a day!

Then around 1997 or so, AOL announced that it was changing it’s price structure and removing the hourly cap on online access.  They rolled out the $25 for unlimited access and it was a total game-changer.  Unfortunately, it also totally changed the experience on AOL.  Suddenly, there were kids everywhere!  I feel like the old man shaking his cyber-fist but suddenly I had to learn what ‘LOL’ and ‘OMG!’ meant, along with ‘trolling’, ‘noobs’ and the endless string of :) :P XOXO.

AOL had gone mainstream, and in the process, the experience that it’s core users had become accustomed to had changed greatly.  Ironically, we are now seeing the same thing happen in reverse with Facebook.  Facebook started out as a site for only college students.  Then the restriction of having an edu address to access FB was lifted, which meant that recent college grads and soon-to-be college students (IOW the younger and older siblings of current FB users) started checking out the site.

The social media geeks found FB in 2007.  Over the next 2-3 years its userbase grew at an astronomical rate.  Suddenly it seemed like every kid from the age of 14-24 was on Facebook.

Then the parents found out that their kids were on Facebook.  Suddenly parents everywhere that had little to no idea what their kids were up to, only had to go on Facebook at it was all there!

As you might expect, Facebook is quickly becoming ‘uncool’ to these kids. In fact, Facebook recently verified that young teens are leaving the site.  Where are they going?  To sites that their parents haven’t discovered yet like SnapChat, Instagram and Path.  Which are now growing like crazy, that is until mom finds out about them…

It’s truly the paradox of growing an online site or portal: You need to reach a certain mass of users to attract more users.  And you need to monetize those users, which is another reason you want more users.  But the simple fact is that adding more users changes the overall experience.  It has for every social media site I’ve used for the last 20+ years.  And when the overall experience changes from what made the site appealing to begin with, people leave.

If you are trying to create an online community site, or even if you are trying to build a blog readership, always focus on delighting and retaining your first users.  These are the builders of your base, the people that love your experience and tell others about it.  When you get in a rush to bring in new users too quickly, you change the experience, which means you lose those first users that are really the foundation for you entire community.  It’s like building a pyramid, you have a strong foundation, then you start slowly building the pyramid.  Then suddenly you start to quickly add on and going skyward with the pyramid, while at the same time you start removing the foundation.  Obviously the pyramid will soon collapse under its own weight.

Never pursue growth at the expense of user experience.  Facebook’s growth was driven by kids.  Kids that are now deciding they don’t like being on the site anymore.  When the foundation is removed the collapse isn’t very far behind.

Jake Parent January 17, 2014 at 7:43 am

The notion of user experience being hurt by increased audience size is a profound one….

To me, it is less about being “cool” (or not) though and more about meeting expectations. In other words, what one person thinks of as being normal social media behavior might be thought of by another as being oversharing (or not sharing enough).

These differences in expectations are nothing new, of course, and are a challenge anytime you get large enough groups of people together. Aristotle even famously posed the question of how large a population could be before they lost their ability to think of themselves as a single cohesive group.

That’s why it seems to me that people will increasingly use the Internet to segment themselves into more specifically defined niches – not unlike how on Prodigy users interacted with one another on little mini-bulletin boards separated out by topic area.

I think we see a similar structure emerging on Google + with the use of communities. People are able to easily join in, manage, and participate in the niche communities of their choice. They can also share specific information only with a specific group of people (ie baby pictures with friend and family) rather than with everyone they’ve ever met.

As you well know, this environment now makes community building skills fundamental for success in marketing. And that’s a good thing, I think. It not only allows businesses to create strong ties with their customers, but it forces those businesses to also be much more responsive, genuine, and conversational. My belief is that such arrangements lead to positive collaboration toward taking on the important problems of our day.

Mack Collier January 17, 2014 at 9:19 am

Thanks Jake, an entirely too profound comment for so early in the day! With every online community, you have a core group that pushes the growth of that community. As long as the core group that built the community stays, the site is typically ok. But if the site ever loses that core group, it’s typcially very bad news for the site.

Now what Facebook has potentially going for it is that it has become so massively huge that the core group that first built it (college kids) could leave (which is happening) and the site still go on because another group has replaced them. I think FB will still be a large socnet for years, but I also think that it will noticeably smaller in 2-3 compared to today.

Jerome Pineau January 17, 2014 at 9:13 am

Ha ha! Beat ya! I was on IRC *then* Compuserve :)

Jerome Pineau January 17, 2014 at 9:15 am

crap, now i can’t remember which came first…thought it was CS…maybe not..ah well the BBSes were definitely before though ;)

Mack Collier January 17, 2014 at 9:16 am

Jerome my first time on ‘the internet’ was around 1988 on good old-fashioned BBSes. I remember the first time someone tried to explain an email address to me they said the format was ‘Your name AT your domain’, and I was totally confused :)

BTW did my first meetup of local BBS guys in 1990. Twitter did not invent the tweetup :)

Jerome Pineau January 17, 2014 at 9:17 am

No, they certainly didn’t you’re right about that! At the time BBSes were all the rage among a (very) small group of wizards, I was on a 300 baud modem hacking into our school’s mainframe beast :P

Mack Collier January 17, 2014 at 9:21 am

Jerome I remember those 300 baud paperweight, in fact I was still on a 56K modem as late as 3-4 years ago!

BBSes and competing with friends on Yankee Trader. Those were the days :)

Jake Parent January 17, 2014 at 9:40 am

I remember plugging in a 14.4k and feeling like I was pressing the gas pedal on a Ferrari. What speeds!!

Although I was born in 1981 my friend Mike and I were huge fans of BBS games like “The Pit” and “Legend Of The Red Dragon.” But we never DARED tell our friends that we were doing so for fear of being totally ostracized. :-)

Mack Collier January 17, 2014 at 9:50 am

Jake you’re right, from 2400 or even 9600 to 14.4 was a big deal! Of course with no pictures to load it worked pretty well.

An internet without pictures…what would today’s kids think? :)

Penina January 17, 2014 at 10:40 am

Better start with street cred: I began with Prodigy and an .edu email address :-)

OK, I’m looking at the FB numbers, and here’s what I see:
In 2011, there were about 13,100,000 teens (13-17)
In 2014, the number went down to about 9,800,00.
Definite downward trend.

In 2011, there were about 137,500,000 users age 25+
In 2014, that number grew to about 179,800,000.
Looks like an upward trend of credit card carrying, (mostly) job holding consumers to me.

I’m not a huge FB fan (the walled garden experience drives me nuts), but I’m on there because A) my family and friends are (even some teens), and B) my market, and my clients’ markets are.

The fact that teens are leaving doesn’t really mean a death knell to me. It just means that the demographic has shifted. I may advise clients with a younger market to point their resources elsewhere.

Change as a constant has never been more true than it is right now, so I’m ready, able and willing to jump ship when FB no longer serves my purposes.

Mack Collier January 17, 2014 at 10:49 am

Good perspective as always, Penina. To your point, FB users will stay as long as three conditions exist:

1 – The core experience that they expect there isn’t significantly lessened

2 – No site offers a compelling reason to switch

3 – There is a critical mass of people there that you want to connect and interact with.

In an online world, I think that third point is the most relevant. In the Summer of 2008 I spent more time on Plurk than I did Twitter. It was partly because Twitter was having scaling issues leading to constant outages, but it was mostly because the majority of my core network went there. When they went back to Twitter, I left Plurk and haven’t been back.

IMO that’s the most telling point for a social network’s success: If you win the attention of my network, you by default win MY attention. When it comes to a social networking site it can have the most fantabulous UI and functionality, but if my friends aren’t using it then I don’t want to use it.

As I said in a previous comment, FB’s userbase is so massive that it may be able to survive the kids leaving, but 2-3 years from now I definitely think the userbase will be significantly smaller than it is now. If history is our guide!

Penina January 17, 2014 at 11:13 am

Mack,

I’m not so sure it will be the case this time. A lot of these users are entrenched. Most of the older users I interact with are slowly figuring out social media and aren’t thrilled with the idea of adapting to the Next Big Thing. Facebook will have to make the experience painful (moment of silence for MySpace) and/or someone will need to come up with something that successfully disentangles an audience that is so far being given plenty of sticky amenities (private groups, photo and video galleries, event sharing, etc.).

What’s more likely to happen is that – IF FB continues to maintain a balance between growing revenue and pleasing users (of whatever age) – the user bases will split off, with inquisitive, tech-confident teens jumping from New Thing to New Thing, and FB slipping into a role of “slow sailing mothership”.

One other thing that *could* kill FB by driving away even entrenched users, is some awful, scandalous news of privacy abuses or slip-ups.

To be clear, my vote is that FB’s growth will likely slow, but I don’t think it will shrink. Let’s check in 2-3 years from now. I agree to send you $5 if I am wrong :-)

Patrick January 19, 2014 at 12:18 pm

Mack,

I hear the argument about not wanting to be on a social network where one’s audience isn’t nearly every day.

It makes sense on some level: you want to be where your audience already is, not where it isn’t.

On another level, though, it doesn’t make sense: 90% of my current audience is on Facebook. So I make sure I’m on Facebook often. A far smaller percentage is on Google+, but I do get traffic from G+, so to the extent that I can be there, I try to be there, too.

There will never be a social media network that will ever exist, I’d wager, in which 100% of my audience will be present. That’d be far too easy.

Your potential audience could be anywhere, not just the social media network where your friends are.

So while I’d never advocate dropping a network where you know your audience is active, I’d never advocate avoiding a network where you know your friends aren’t active, either; the next wave of fans you create may well come from a new network that most of your current friends haven’t found.

I definitely see the current audience as the “bread and butter.” You protect that audience, certainly.

I see the challenge as finding ways to expand one’s reach across more networks — at least as long as he can do it well — to reach TOMORROW’S followers and ADD them to today’s.

Penina January 17, 2014 at 10:53 am

Woops!
The second group is not age 25+, but age 18+.

Penina January 17, 2014 at 11:17 am

Urk! One more thought – I have deadlines!

One thing I am not taking into account is that FB has given older users features they didn’t know they needed.

Someone could come along with a new set of services older users did not know they needed. I doubt it will be peer-to-peer sharing… but creative coders are probably tackling this puzzle right now.

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