Monday, September 15, 2008

Is Consumer Interest in Social Media Fading?

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, 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.


Gee said...

Very insightful article and right on target. I used to be Facebook junkie but now I tweet only. The main reason is I get so much more info from those whom I follow than sending plants to Facebook friends to save the earth. I just don't have much time in the day to go to different social networking sites. Uses and gratifications theory would explain this changing habit. I don't know much about aggregation mechanism but I'd prefer to go to influential bloggers like you and there I'd see your recent posts on twitter, facebook, friendfeed, etc, all-in-one site. You did have your tweets on this site, and that's great. BTW, I'd love to hear what you think about semantic web (web 3.0?) I am not sure I understand what it means or how it works.

Gee Ekachai

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Gee. I used to maintain a personal blog for everything from funny videos to political discussion, but like you, I found Twitter replaced all that.

Check out my blog post tomorrow (still in the works) where I try to define a Social Media future and what we can do today to embrace it.

Appreciate the comment and the compliments!

I don't yet have much of an opinion on or vision for the Semantic Web. I am too busy trying to figure out Web 2.0 to worry about Web 3.0 yet!

Ari Herzog said...

Let's step back, Augie.

It's unfair to use that 36% figure to represent global society.

The Synovate report (which eMarketer refers) contains aggregate data from 17 countries, many of which are experiencing their own digital gaps due to the lack of broadband access and WiFi hotspots, few computers in rural schools, etc.

Social media tools are not causing the fade; it's the digital divide. When you include the United States and Canada in the same group as Brazil and Indonesia, what do you expect? Everyone doesn't have access to the same tools due to language and computer literacy gaps.

I also think you're confusing the Internet with the World Wide Web. The former's been around for decades; the latter is not even 15 years old.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Ari, but I'm not sure I understand your comments. Can you elaborate?

It seems to me if Social Network people say they're tiring of Social Network, that can't be due to digital divides in other countries. A digital divide will PREVENT people from accessing the Internet and thus keep some people from getting involved with online social media in the first place, but once they are already connected to social media, I don't see how a digital divide can cause them to lose interest. And, as the report notes, the loss of interest isn't just in developing countries.

As for my use of the terms "Internet" or "World Wide Web", you are correct that I am using the terms interchangeably, although your dates are not strictly correct. The Web was invented in 1989 (19 years ago) and released in 1992. It was made widely available to consumers in 1994 to 1995, which is the period I referenced when I mentioned the Internet "as a consumer communications medium." Since most people don't think if Usenet boards and email as the Internet and instead think of the WWW, I think I'm on safe ground using them interchangeably, but your feedback is appreciated that I should be careful with my language!

Ari Herzog said...

I refer to the digital divide as including people who use technology but may not understand its benefits, such as people who know about eBay and Facebook but never heard of social media or social networking.

I routinely run into people who associate ideas when presented with brand names, but few people can associate brand names with ideas. For instance, if you ask your grandmother to name some computer companies, she may not know, whereas she'd remember names like IBM and Dell.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Ari. That makes sense. If I understand your point, you may be suggesting there's a new digital divide--a social media divide. If you register on a Social Media site and have no friends on that site with whom to connect, then the luster of Social Media is lost on you.

It's interesting--I tell people who have yet to jump into the Social Media pool that they need to have patience when they do get involved. At first, it may seem confusing and useless, and if they don't have friends or a network, it will take time for the benefits and wonders of social networking to become evident.

Thanks for the comments!

Ari Herzog said...

I'd go beyond a social media divide, Augie.

It's like this: I attended a party last weekend and talked to some people about my social media consulting business I am developing, and people asked me, "What's social media?"

I asked them if they've bought items on eBay, found roommates on Craigslist, or poked people on Facebook.

They said yes to all of the above. At which point I explained the differences between old and new media, etc.

So, going back to your grandmother who's heard of IBM but may not have mentioned IBM as a computer company, the party attendees knew Facebook, but would never have named it as a part of social media.

Social media is not fading, I think, but people who use social media tools don't know what else is out there because they're only confining themselves to one or two social networking sites "because their friends are there."

How many of my friends who are on Facebook would subscribe to feeds in a RSS reader, let alone search for blog posts they find interesting, such as my responding and interacting with you? Your grandma may love talking to you, Augie, but who's telling her she can speak to you easier on Skype than on the telephone?

Does this help?