Cascading departures and chaos at Twitter, layoffs and stock market crash for Meta, parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, the future of social networks seems nebulous. Is this the beginning of the end? Decryption.
There is Facebook. Losing momentum and with an unconvincing metaverse strategy, the blue giant is laying off 11,000 employees. And then there is 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 already living 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 ancestor of social networks born in 2002, and its 115 million users? Who still remembers MySpace, born in 2003 and which “killed” Friendster and was then overtaken by Facebook?
In the early 2000s, social media was the primary Internet experience for most of us. With a promise: to be connected, to build or deepen relationships with friends, family and work colleagues.
And Facebook was
But how did Mark Zuckerberg’s network dethrone MySpace?
Facebook had the genius to make better use of 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 is starting out in a niche market, that of students from American universities like Harvard. It then opened up to other universities, before becoming accessible to everyone in September 2006. The success of Facebook is the use of the local network effect. And then Mark Zuckerberg does not make the mistake of believing that what is important is the number of users. No, for him it’s the quality of the relationships they have.
MySpace allowed a connection to people from all over the world, but that we did not know. The genius of Facebook was to offer us a place where we could meet our friends, our family, our co-workers.
Facebook has thus succeeded in questioning the theory of the 6 degrees of separation, which affirms that each person in the world is connected to any other by a chain of maximum 6 links. With Facebook we are at 3.57, we read on.
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 was
Everything changed in 2009. We were somewhere 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 turn into a competition of numbers. Get as many “likes” as possible. You have to have a lot of friends.
>> To listen also: The excesses of the “like” buttons
Another change, given the amount of content produced, Facebook’s news feed defaults to algorithmic rather than chronological sorting. To be able to stand out in the uninterrupted flow of information, you have to feed the machine. The larger the crowd, the higher the possibility of being heard.
The rise of social media
Social networks thus become social media, as Ian Bogost explains in an article published on. “Social media has made you, me and everyone into broadcasters (even if they are aspirants). The results have been disastrous but also very enjoyable, not to mention the massive profitability – a catastrophic combination,” he wrote.
So we lose the notion of a network of human relations, we go on 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 finely thanks to our data. It’s the attention economy.
The virtuous circle becomes vicious.
Important mobilization tools during citizen revolts, Twitter and Facebook are gradually becoming a driving force for extremism, misinformation, hate speech and harassment. Social media is in the midst of an existential crisis.
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This trend is reinforced with the recent decision by Instagram and Facebook to copy TikTok and its content recommendation algorithm. We are moving towards mass digital media, which offer videos of users we do not know, processed by machine learning. A certain idea of Facebook and Twitter, that of the 2010s, is disappearing.
>> To listen also: Elon Musk’s project for Twitter
We are not going to give up creating content and sharing it with others, social media is not going to disappear but it will still evolve. Social media is regenerating with the appearance of other actors like Mastodon who are turning to more and more users who left Twitter following the takeover by Elon Musk.
Human nature will not fundamentally change, we will still be social beings, and our online behaviors will adapt to new technologies.