Social isn’t over, it just grew up


A couple of months ago it was reported that Facebook users were undertaking less "original sharing" - that is: personal updates as opposed to third party content. Facebook sees this as a big problem because it changes the very nature of the service.

Roll forward to the beginning of May and Mike Elgan authored a piece at Computerworld entitled "I'm calling it: social networking is over" in which he said:

And just like that, social networking is no more. The sites formerly known as social networks are pivoting to something else.

I said in a tweet at the time:

According to The Verge, Facebook is testing a new way of posting to help counter this which appears on the New Feed only and does not remain on your timeline. This new post type is intended to increase personal sharing and the article argues that it works more like a tweet, being more short-lived, as it falls off the bottom of the News Feed quickly.

Tweets, however, remain on your personal timeline so, in that regard, News Feed only posts are better although they can still be found by search. Still, I doubt that this will increase personal sharing to any great degree, if at all.

Public to private

There is no doubt that we have seen a shift from public networks to more ephemeral services and messaging based platforms such as SnapChat and WhatsApp.

With over 1.6 billion users, 1 billion of whom are active on a monthly basis, you can hardly argue that Facebook is "over" but the company recognised early that the nature of social sharing was changing - this is not a new thing. The $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp may have seemed crazy at the time but has shown itself to be a most prescient move.

Combined with Facebook's own Messenger platform, WhatsApp has accelerated the move away from public updates which is obviously a worry for Facebook - hence the new post type. The network has always been predicated upon existing relationships but if these relationships are being taken private then the whole house of cards starts to look very shaky.

If personal updates are removed from the core product (by its users) Facebook is left with a more Twitteresque reliance on news and current events, but it it not set up to be this kind of network.

Scale and scope

Elgan contradicts himself: on the one hand, as mentioned above, he states "social networks are pivoting to something else" but also says that, with the exception of Facebook, none of the others were ever really social networks to begin with.

During the social explosion that was Web 2.0 social functionality was stapled on to everything in the hope of capitalising on the apparent "user created content" gold rush, but when a dominant player (Facebook) appears to have won it is not surprising to see them refocus on their core purpose.

The social explosion was just as much a psychological phenomenon as a functional one. Social was a novelty, largely unseen by the real world. The arrival of mass broadcast media was a novelty and the default position became "share everything" - each tiny nuance and facet no matter how banal or potentially embarrassing. As social grew more mainstream, however, the realisation kicked in that the consequences of your online actions were just as real, especially when tied to your identity.

The days of reckless abandon are over.

Elgan is right: there is a behavioural shift, just not in the way he describes. People have not stopped being social, it's just that their engagement is shrinking in scope from global broadcasts to targeted conversations with specific groups.

The actual scale of social is bigger than ever.

What is social?

Elgan distinguishes between social networking and social media as personal content versus professional content but I would challenge his definitions. He asserts people haven't realised that social networking is in decline as they equate the two.

Not so.

I would, instead, revert to the more straightforward definitions below:

  • social networking - the physical act
  • social media - the places we do it

We don't need to make it any more complicated than that.

In the beginning, how much personal sharing was considered pointless or trite? How many saw social networking as rubbish because it was filled with rubbish? You can't have your cake and Instagram it.

What if we make it even simpler by looking at the definition of social; a quick search returns:

  1. relating to society or its organisation
  2. needing companionship and, therefore, best suited to living in communities

We have an even more coherent, and perhaps relevant, definition from Miriam Webster:

relating to or involving activities in which people spend time talking to each other or doing enjoyable things with each other.

We actually have two separate definitions of social in play simultaneously, and Elgan is really just lamenting the move from one to another. The act of being social has not gone away, it has just moved, shifted.

With the emphasis moving from personal updates to news, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter (yes, I'm still calling Twitter a social network here) are now fulfilling a role that better reflects that first definition of social: relating to society.

Social networking has matured, platforms and behaviours have changed, but it is still as alive as ever. It is positively thriving.

It just grew up!

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