Cascading departures and chaos at Twitter, layoffs and a stock market crash for Meta, parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, the future of social networks seems bleak. Is this the beginning of the end? Decryption.
There is Facebook. Losing momentum and in an unconvincing metaverse strategy, the blue giant is laying off 11,000 employees. And then there’s Twitter. After laying off half of his 7,500 employees, Elon Musk issued an ultimatum to those who remained, asking them to “work long hours at high intensity”. The billionaire’s request triggered a cascade of departures.
Is this the beginning of the end for these platforms? In a context of obvious decline, the hypothesis is not far-fetched. Because we are living at the end of a certain idea that we have of social networks.
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Two decades of history
Who still remembers Friendster, the progenitor of social networks born in 2002, and its 115 million users? Who still remembers MySpace, born in 2003 and who “killed” Friendster and then was overtaken by Facebook?
In the early 2000s, social media was the primary Internet experience for most of us. With a commitment: to be connected, to build or deepen relationships with friends, family and work colleagues.
And Facebook is
But how did Mark Zuckerberg’s network take down MySpace?
Facebook has the wisdom to better use the economic concept of “network effect” (editor’s note: the network effect), which means that the usefulness of a service is measured by the number of users.
To achieve this, Facebook starts with a niche market, students from American universities such as Harvard. It then opened up to other universities, before becoming accessible to all in September 2006. Facebook’s success was harnessing the local network effect. And then Mark Zuckerberg is not wrong to believe that what matters is the number of users. No, for him it was the quality of the relationships they had.
MySpace allowed a connection with people from all over the world, but we didn’t know. The beauty of Facebook is to offer us a place where we can meet our friends, our family, our co-workers.
That’s why Facebook succeeded in questioning the theory of 6 degrees of separation, proving that every person in the world is connected to anyone through a chain of a maximum of 6 links. On Facebook we are at 3.57, we keep reading.
Thanks to Facebook, we know the whole world at 3.57 degrees of separation. [Facebook – DR]
The world of social networks is small. Smaller and smaller.
And the “Like” button is
Everything changed in 2009. We were between the appearance of smartphones (2007) and the launch of Instagram (2010).
In 2009 the “Like” button appeared on Facebook and forever changed our relationships in online life. They become a competition of numbers. Get as many “likes” as possible. You need to have a lot of friends.
>> To listen too: The excess of “like” buttons
Another change, due to the volume of content produced, Facebook’s news feed defaults to algorithmic rather than chronological sorting. To stand out from the endless stream of information, you need to feed the machine. The larger the crowd, the higher the probability of being heard.
The rise of social media
Social networks thus become social media, as Ian Bogost explained in an article published in. “Social media has made you, me and all journalists (even if they are aspirants). The results are devastating but also very fun, not to mention enormous profitability – a disastrous combination,” he wrote.
So losing the notion of a network of human relationships, we turn to Facebook and Twitter to get information. Facebook turns its “social graph” of human relationships into a money-making machine for advertisers who target their ads very well thanks to our data. This is the attention economy.
The virtuous circle turns vicious.
Important mobilization tools during civil uprisings, Twitter and Facebook are increasingly becoming a driving force for extremism, disinformation, hate speech and harassment. Social media is in the midst of an existential crisis.
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This trend is fueled by Instagram and Facebook’s recent decision to copy TikTok and its content recommendation algorithm. We are moving towards mass digital media, offering videos of users we don’t know, processed by machine learning. A certain idea of Facebook and Twitter, which was in the 2010s, is disappearing.
>> To also listen: Elon Musk’s project for Twitter
We will not give up on creating content and sharing it with others, social media will not disappear but it will still evolve. The social media is remaking the appearance of other actors like Mastodon who turned to more and more users who left Twitter following Elon Musk’s takeover.
Human nature will not fundamentally change, we will become social creatures, and our online behaviors will adapt to new technologies.