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The Death of Social Media?

Since 2018 the PR coverage for the tech giants has been tough. Abuse and misuse of data, exposure of flawed corporate cultures, societal angst and fear about the effects of social media and probably most troubling (for owners and shareholders), the decrease in stock market value – the significant decline of market capitalisation.

So, was that just a bad year or a blip before normal service resumes? For anyone using social media for marketing and communications here are three problems, followed by three reasons for hope.

The Three Problems:

If you’re not paying, you’re the product.

In Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now Jaron Lanier reminds us that from the outset, social media was presented as a ‘free lunch’. As anyone familiar with their aphorisms will tell you, that type of meal just doesn’t exist.

The “If you’re not paying…” quote was probably coined in the early 1970s when commercial TV expanded its “free” content (programming) by introducing, then increasing, adverts. The viewer became the product that the advertiser paid the TV company to access.

This is also true for social media users. That we realised our data was being used and abused after the Cambridge Analytica scandal wasn’t the story in 2018 – the fact it took us so long to notice (and care) was. As a result, we’re starting to see behaviour change as the diminishing trust leads to changes in how and which, platforms and networks are used. On top of this and because of the concerns about data misuse, there’s increasing regulation of the tech giants from government, particularly in Europe. This all equates to social media use fundamentally (and probably permanently) shifting.

For marketers this all combines to make the target audience even harder to understand and reach online.

The audience is becoming scarce.

If you rely on social media to reach your audience, life has become a great deal harder. During 2018 the audience pool appeared to be drying up, here’s some evidence.

At the end of 2017, based on research from eMarketer, Recode reported that “Facebook lost around 2.8 million US users under 25”. In 2018 Fortune magazine also reported that Facebook experienced a decline in traffic of “nearly 50% in two years”. Finally, during 2018 SimilarWeb showed the decline of monthly visits to Facebook in the billions (that’s worth repeating: decline in monthly visits: Measured. In. The. Billions.)

Is this decline terminal, are we all permanently switching off from Facebook and social media? This is one of those frustrating pieces of data because it’s possible to find (seemingly) contradictory stories that shows we’re all using social media more. So, what does this mean?

More on that below but the stats aren’t wrong, nor are they misreported. The “general” traffic to Facebook is going down as are the referrals from Facebook to third-party websites and that’s a trend.

The regulators are coming.

When considering the “what next?” question for large tech, respected author, commentator and academic Scott Galloway feels that one (or multiples) of the big four will be hit with regulation such as an antitrust suit in the US, potentially leading to a forced break-up of one (or multiples) of the enterprises.

Antitrust is powerful legislation, introduced in the US in the late 1890s to prevent anti-competitive practice. One of the most famous cases of antitrust (Ma Bell and the Baby Bells) led to the break-up of AT&T’s local telephone exchange operating companies. In more recent times Microsoft was hit with an antitrust suit after it was accused of squeezing out competitor app developers due to its dominance of the PC operating system. The settlement required Microsoft to share its application programming interfaces (APIs) with third-party companies, therefore restricting its own growth and benefiting competitors.

Galloway’s tongue-in-cheek assessment is that if Facebook were as “unlikable” as Microsoft in the late 1990s, an antitrust case would already be underway.

While other commentators aren’t as convinced about US Govt. intervention, there’s nervousness amongst the giants about how the EU and UK might act. Recent reports of US tech lobbyists The Internet Association establishing a presence in London and other silicon valley lobbyists heading for Brussels, is a visible sign that the threat of new regulation is in the air.

However the legislators choose to act, there will be an effect on the tools and networks we’re currently familiar with. It might not be GDPR but keep an eye open and be prepared to change.

Three reasons for hope:

The audience is growing (it’s just harder to find).

So here’s the flip-side to “The Audience is becoming scarce” thing. Common Sense Media reported that US teenager social media use is growing in absolute and relative terms, meaning more of them are using social media and for longer periods of time. As reported by Statista, Facebook themselves are reporting increased user growth across all their media and eMarketer predict that the historic growth of social media use will continue to trend upwards (projected towards over 3 billion users by 2022).

It would seem that the decline-of-use stories are actually about a shift of where the users are consuming social media. For example, the apparently contradictory evidence that Facebook is both losing and yet retaining users seems to be because they’re moving from accessing the ‘traditional’ desktop website to move into other Facebook spaces. Towards the end of 2018 under the headline “Facebook Sketches A Future With A Diminished News Feed” Wired reported that Facebook CEO and majority owner, Mark Zuckerberg said:

“…the self-imposed splintering of Facebook’s audience is as big as the shift the company underwent about six years ago when it realised users primarily wanted to interact with Facebook on a smartphone, not on a laptop or desktop.

If the last 10 years at Facebook have been about connecting friends and family, the next 10 will be about building communities.”

In an article about marketing on Facebook, Digiday UK stated that “Interest in Facebook groups is high, but growth is slow for brands.” This is probably the best summary of how use and behaviour in social media is fundamentally shifting.

The audience may be harder to find but they are self-segmenting.

As Digiday reported, this move of users into Facebook groups (and by inference other specialist social media spaces) makes it harder for organisations to find

and interact with their audiences. However, what this does mean is that users are effectively self-segmenting by moving themselves into specific areas of interest. This in turn means that if businesses, charities, universities, local authorities, etc. are well versed about who their audience is and what they care about, there will be a much better chance of working out which groups and specialist social media spaces they will be active in.

This shift has happened before, we can learn from history (from the medieval square to the Enlightenment coffee house).

To try and understand the current change in social media behaviour it’s helpful to think about general human behaviour during the Enlightenment compared to life during the middle ages.

The space of social and commercial interaction for a typical medieval European would have been in the local market square. Reflecting the common existence of limited choice, restricted travel, limited freedom of thought or association. People mostly lived and operated in a local and mixed commercial and social space.

Compare that with the Enlightenment of the 17th/18th Centuries and the shift in thinking and behaviour that included increased literacy, freedom of movement, freedom of expression and the expectation of greater personal choice. Individuals no longer met and transacted in the rural town square but instead migrated to find their own particular groups and spaces.

The English coffee houses of the 1700s particularly represent the shift. Developing from the “Penny Universities” in Oxford, the coffee houses in London were places where different groups could meet to talk, discuss and transact, different coffee houses meeting different group needs. The philosophers and political thinkers meeting in their places and the stock brokers, merchants and journalists meeting in their own as well. These were potent and significant groups which gave birth to a variety of enterprises including the insurer Lloyds of London, The London Stock Exchange and the news publication The Spectator.

This feels like the behaviour currently happening on social media, we’re no longer happy with being mixed in with everyone else we want somewhere tailored, respectful and accommodating for our own specific needs. If we consider Facebook groups (or other more “specialist” social media spaces) as being like the coffee houses of the 18th century, organisations can begin to formulate new approaches to find and engage their audiences based on who they are and what they’re interested in.

Think: in which “Coffee House” are my audience gathering and what do I need to create and offer to gain entry and add value for them when I’m there?

Contact us if you'd like to discuss and understand how you can more effectively engage with your audience on social media.

[There's a short presentation to accompany this article - you can see it here on YouTube.]


Many thanks to Andrei Lacatusu for permission to use the 'Facebook' image from the collection "Social Decay"

'Social Decay' and Andre's other artwork can be viewed at Behance

Andrei's LinkedIn profile:

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