Alex Steer

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Revisiting the future of social networks

1649 words | ~8 min

Social networking may be ones of those areas where change is the only constant, but over the last few months there have been more reasons that normal to think about how it has changed, and where it is heading.

Facebook, now a 1.2 billion user network, recently had its tenth anniversary and invited users to create 'lookback' videos showcasing the time they'd spent on the platform. At around the same time, an earnings call showed declining (though still dominant) usage among teens. Not long after, it acquired WhatsApp, a single-minded messaging app whose founders proclaim, in a sign taped to their desk, 'No ads! No games! No gimmicks!' But WhatsApp's new owner has spent the last two years commercialising its platform in the wake of its IPO, making it near impossible for brands to reach audiences without paying for ads. Facebook and Twitter remain the big-league networks but, with 240 million monthly active users (and its own recent IPO), Twitter has been almost caught up by Instagram (with 200m), and overtaken by the professional network LinkedIn (with 259m+).

So what do we make of all this, except to whistle 'The times they are a-changin'?

In 2011, working at The Futures Company, I set out to apply a scenario planning approach to the noisy world of social networking, in a report called Status Update. Starting with the idea that user preference would be the the long-term critical success factor for any network that monetised its users, we mapped the user choices that seemed most uncertain at the time - those which could go either way.

We identified six. In honour of the term used to describe fundamental changes of direction within tech startups, we called them Pivot Points and build plausible future scenarios for social networking from the trade-offs they implies. They were:

  1. Scale. 'Big Net' futures where users prefer large networks; 'Tight Knit' futures where they prefer intimate ones.
  2. Privacy. 'Open Hand' futures where users willingly disclose personal data; 'Closed Fist' futures where they prefer to remain anonymous and control their data.
  3. Focus. 'One for All' futures where a few multi-functional networks win; 'One for Each' futures where many functionally specific ones are used.
  4. Time spent. 'Turn On' futures where users prefer to be always connected; 'Tune Out' futures where usage is occasional.
  5. Utility. 'Plug' futures where social networks are utilities; 'Play' futures where they are entertainments.
  6. Worldview. 'Challenge' networks where users are exposed to many differing perspective; vs 'Confirm' networks dominated by the reassuring and familiar.

Three years on, how did these uncertainties turn out? Which are resolved, which are still open - and what's new?

Looking back - Pivot Points in review

The scale question is largely resolved - users still incline towards big, popular networks. The dip in Facebook's use among teens is a slight counterfactual to this, but this is more motivated by the 'focus' and 'utility' drivers than by scale or privacy, as the excellent recent Pew research demonstrates. Teens are using Facebook less because maintaining a presence there and checking up on friends is too burdensome vs the quick clean interactions enabled by Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc. They are less concerned about privacy than they were a few years ago, because they feel better able to manage it. Scale of networks is not a significant factor. In general, the promise of small, intimate networks was not fulfilled - remember Color, Path or Diaspora? (Thought not.)

The privacy debate has moved on significantly. On the one hand, there is high expressed concern around third-party access to personal data held in networks - by spies and insurers more than advertisers. Yet behaviour around the broadcasting of personal information has become more permissive, with the growth of networks that depend more on public broadcast models and less on intimate sharing with friends (e.g. Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, or YouTube as a subscriber model for video blogging). As noted above, we've got better at managing and negotiating online privacy - a trend mapped by the excellent work of Danah Boyd and Alice Warwick. We're worried less about our bosses seeing last night's photos, more about spooks putting together metadata profiles about us that we can neither argue with nor control.

The areas of focus and utility have seen some dramatic changes and to some extent converged, as the WhatsApp acquisition exemplifies. Younger users, in particular, have rushed in the direction of networks that do one thing, quickly and well. Twitter and Instagram have also been beneficiaries here. This is driven, though, by a desire for functional efficiency, not for conceptual leanness - and this in turn is likely prompted by the expectations of users who increasingly use mobile devices as their preferred means of access. So Facebook has done well by splitting its user experience into different mobile apps (e.g. Messenger, Paper), while Twitter and WhatsApp have thrived by avoiding distracting bloat - and Twitter has aggressively killed off third-party apps, stripping the user experience back to basics and re-engineering its platform to optimise for speed. Even Facebook on desktop has focused down on the news feed. And LinkedIn has thrived by being all about business networking (stalking in a suit and tie).

The time spent debate is, similarly, largely over. As mobile becomes the dominant way of interacting, so always-on becomes the expectation. The idea of the 'digital detox' is more talked about than done. As seen above, this has become a contextual driver - the idea of very regular connection is so embedded that it conditions the shift towards more focused networking applications. There are, though, probably some niche opportunities for the app equivalent of the 'slow food' movement, targeting jaded thirtysomethings (ahem) who have run out of things to say, who notice their friends have too, and who may want a less persistent, more occasional relationship with their networks. This will remain a counter-trend, though.

Lastly, worldview. Despite the early promise of networks like Quora, we prefer to be in the company of the like-minded, to the point that Facebook has had to act to squash the runaway virality of 'social news' sites like Upworthy which trade on human interest stories and other 'link-bait', in favour of giving breathing room to more 'serious' organs of the press.

Looking forward - revised Pivot Points

So thinking ahead over the next few years, what would we carry forward? I'd suggest that the issues of scaleprivacy and focus will remain relevant, but I'd briefly reframe the uncertainties as follows, and add a fourth which is new.

  1. Utility. Will we want to carry our identity and preferences across networks ('Passport' futures) or keep them separate ('Padlock' futures)?
  2. Privacy. Will we want tighter controls over third-party data access ('Speak No Evil' futures), or limits on what networks know in the first place ('See No Evil' futures)?
  3. Focus. Will we want networking applications to be provided by a few big companies ('Big House' futures) or by many small ones ('Small Holding' futures)?
  4. Discovery. Will we want to discover content based on the people we know ('Connected' futures) or the things we're interested in ('Curated' futures)?

The fourth one is a genuinely new addition because, even in 2011, the use of social networks as channels for large-scale discovery of news, information, entertainment etc. (broadly, 'content') was in its infancy. Since then it has exploded, but its terms have changed. Facebook, in particular, has switched its focus from the social graph (whom you know) to the interest graph (what you like) as a way of serving content and monetising users. This has been a largely unstated change and is generating a backlash from users, as this recent wildly popular post shows. But even while users are demanding their social graph back, they are making more use of interest-based networks (e.g. YouTube subscriber channels, Instagram, Tumblr among teens, Pinterest among young women). In either case, networks will need to be straight about the grounds on which they enable networking and discovery.

As before, these are not predictions, just signposts. These new Pivot Points are more commercial in orientation than before - more about business models and ownership of data, less about the specifics of features provided. Assuming that doesn't just reflect my interests (maybe), I think it indicates the growing maturity of the category, and users' growing awareness of the need to come to an accommodation with what are, after all, businesses trying to make money out of them. If these readings are valid, then even while social networking services become a more established part of everyday life, the business environment could get tougher for those who provide them.

Thanks to Andrew Curry for the invitation/prod to revisit the Pivot Points.

# Alex Steer (07/04/2014)