eMarketer reports that 36% of social network users say they are losing interest in online social networking. Does this mean Social Media is a fad that will soon fade? To answer that question, we need to explore what it is that is causing those people to lose interest.
Do you believe that consumers are growing tired of having relationships with each other? Are they rejecting their networks of friends and business associates? Are they weary of sharing and hearing opinions on matters such as politics, sports, products and services? Is there no longer interest in competing, collaborating, and sharing with others?
Of course not; Social Media has existed since the beginning of the human experience, and we have constantly adopted and adapted to advancements that permit us to communicate better, build relationships, gather information from others, and extend our influence. Facebook, Twitter, and Scribd are simply the latest in a long line of communication, collaboration, and relationship-building innovations that stretch back millennia, including language itself, the printing press, the telephone, the photocopier, mobile phones, and the Internet.
If consumers are not tiring (nor will they ever tire) of better ways to be social, why are 36% losing interest in Social Media? That's easy, of course: Today's tools are relatively crude, unintuitive, and redundant. Engaging in the Social Media of 2008 requires a commitment--too much monitoring across too many sites for too little benefit.
The problem is evident when you consider that the hottest tools today aren't the Social Media sites themselves but instead are services (such as Ping.fm, Socialthing and hellotxt) that aggregate your content across multiple sites. These tools are necessary because the Social Media environment is too distributed to participate in just one place, and it's difficult to maintain profiles, status, communications, and relationships across multiple sites.
If we agree it is the tools and not the underlying concept of Social Media that is causing consumer fatigue, what does this tell us of the future? The next decade will see an increase in the innovation and investment in Social Media; tools and services will multiply and compete; consumers will gravitate from one tool to the next in search of the Social Media services that best suit their needs and lifestyles; many Social Media startups will fail and merge but some will succeed; as the tools improve, consumer acceptance and adoption will grow, changing Social Media demographics; consumer behavior and expectations will evolve as they embrace this new medium; and all of this will force changes in the way business markets to, sells to, services, and builds relationships with consumers, employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders.
You don't need to have a crystal ball to see that future; Social Media's prospects are evident by examining the recent past. If you've been involved with the Internet for over a decade, the fact that some people are becoming jaded with Social Media will likely cause a sense of déjà vu. Throughout much of first seven years of the Internet's existence (as a consumer communications medium), there were those who claimed it would soon pass out of vogue; at one point, none other than Bill Gates himself was said to have dismissed the Internet as a passing fad.
By the time the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, consumers were said to be growing "frustrated, cynical and wary." Wired ran a report entitled, "Internet World is Shrinking" (a play on words about the Internet itself and the Internet World conference). In 2001, the growth in Internet usage took a breather, leading to headlines such as "Is The Internet Fad Over?", and the San Jose Mercury News reported, "An assumption once taken for granted -- that an endless number of Americans are going online and getting hooked to the Net -- is faltering these days."
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Internet's demise were greatly exaggerated. While the dot-com crash did cause a temporary pause in the growth of Internet users, ad spending, and investment, it all came roaring back with new innovations including broadband and Internet-enabled mobile phones. Social Media has also been a major part of the Internet's post-bubble growth; sites such as YouTube and Facebook weren't even in the top 10,000 most visited sites in 2005, and today both are in the top ten.
When we see reports such as the one from eMarketer that indicate consumers are growing tired of Social Media, we should take this not so much as a threat but as a challenge to continue to improve the tools. It may help to recall that 13 years ago, when the Internet was first being made available to consumers, it wasn't a very friendly place--text-heavy pages downloading slowly through 56k modems with little interactivity and no rich media. The Internet of 2008 bears little resemblance to the Internet of 1995. Makes you wonder how amazing, engaging, useful, and rich Social Media will be thirteen years from now in 2021, doesn't it?
The future of Social Media cannot be considered from the context of today's immature tools but from the concepts and tools that will revolutionize personal communication in the years to come. Tomorrow on Experience: The Blog we'll consider what Social Media might be like in the year 2021 and consider what this means to us today.