Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Fates of Social Networks

Cory Doctorow's latest LOCUS column explores the breakdown of social networking sites, which he seems to believe is the inevitable culmination of their life cycles:

Social Quitting

He focuses on Facebook and Twitter. Are they doomed to go the way of their predecessors such as MySpace? They've had a longer run, but he thinks they, too, are in the process of changing from "permanent to ephemeral."

Personally, I don't expect Facebook to fade away anytime soon like previous services that imploded "into ghost towns, then punchlines, then forgotten ruins." I can't speak about Twitter, since I've never joined it and, given the current turmoil surrounding it, I don't plan to, even though lots of authors make productive use of it. Mainly, I can't imagine myself conjuring up cogent, entertaining tweets several times a day, which seems to be the criterion for using Twitter effectively. I had a MySpace account during the height of its popularity. The site struck me as a visually exhausting mess, dominated by flashy ads and hard to comprehend or navigate. Also, if anybody I knew used it, I never managed to connect with them. I joined Facebook because it became the only reliable way to keep track of many of our contemporary and younger relatives. (People who ignore e-mails will often answer Facebook messages.) Later, numerous organizations and businesses I wanted to keep up with established dedicated Facebook pages.

Doctorow analyzes these "network effects," summarized as, "A system has ‘network effects’ if it gets more valuable as more people use it." Facebook's attraction of more and more customers has a snowballing effect; people want to go where other people they know are. When the volume of users reaches critical mass, the "switching cost" becomes prohibitively high for most customers. Leaving the service becomes more trouble than it's worth. As long as the benefits of the service outweigh disadvantages such as becoming the object of targeted advertising, most people who've grown used to the advantages will stick around. But, as Doctorow explains the current situation, social media platforms shift more of their value—the "surplus," in economics terminology—to advertisers rather than users. Later, they tend to get greedy and make things difficult for advertisers, too. Then the "inverse network effects" kick in: The greater number of customers and advertisers that quit the network, the less value exists for those who stay, so even more leave.

Although Doctorow doesn't use the term, his explanation reminds me of the "sunk cost" principle. If we've already poured a lot of time, money, or energy into something, we're reluctant to give up on it. We continue to invest in it because otherwise our previous efforts would seem "wasted."

In my opinion, although based on my own probably limited experiences and interests, Doctorow exaggerates as far as Facebook is concerned. I have no intent of abandoning it in the foreseeable future. Our relatives and real-world friends who use the service haven't begun to disappear. (In fact, one who stopped several years ago has come back.) Local businesses still post updates there. Our church has an active page we rely on. My various writing-related groups continue to thrive. As for the advertising, it doesn't bother me. How hard is it to scroll down to the next post? Besides, some ads alert me to products such as new books that might actually interest me. The occasionally outright spooky knowledge of my habits and interests many websites display (how does the weather page know what I recently searched for on Amazon?) has a definite downside in terms of privacy concerns. However, it also offers advantages by way of customizing and streamlining the user's internet experience. And how can I legitimately complain about Facebook advertising when I use the site to promote my own books?

In short, there must be enough people and organizations among my contacts who are as change-averse as I am, to maintain the site's value for me. And I can't believe I'm alone in that position.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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