Social networks are to the Internet what the Model T was to the automotive industry. They make information accessible to the masses in ways we never could have imagined. We are getting it faster and we are getting it cheaper – in keyboard strokes that is.
Facebook and Twitter, the two major players in the industry, have two fundamentally different networking and advertising models. They have some common ground, many downsides and interesting side effects.
The Facebook model has led to a chronic case of serial connectivity. Every time we are introduced to someone, we feel the need to add them to our connection bank, in the hopes of building a relationship with them. The honest, and often jaded truth, is you are only adding to the clutter and clouding out the people that matter.
On the other hand, Twitter does not use the friending concept. It makes it a little harder to get started but allows you to pick and choose who you want to keep up with. Moreover, it does not stop anyone else from keeping up with you.
The Facebook model teaches us the value of friends, family and colleagues whilst the Twitter model helps us discover the world and engage it in conversation. Information – just like a relationship – is meant to be consumed. Its very nature makes it highly addictive: you always want more of it. The real trick is to pace yourself, and someday soon, you will all have to face the truth: you do not have thousands of friends.
Another thing I’m quite uneasy about is this never ending demonization of advertising. In principle, advertising is not the enemy. It helps companies reach out to the willing and able consumer. Here is my problem: where is the relationship? Take a moment to think this through: when you log into Facebook, why are you there? To network with friends or check out the advertisements in the sidebar? Demographic targets and complex algorithms aside, you have no relationship with Facebook.
The inherent lack of a relationship between the source of the advertisement and its recipient – you – does not make for a very efficient model. On top of that, you have no dialog with the advertiser and no way of engaging with the advertisement.
You might be tempted to compare the Facebook model to that of television’s, and you would be right; they are one and the same. Facebook has the added benefit of letting the commercials stick around during your entire viewing experience. It has roped in billions of impressionable viewers and generates billions in revenue each year, but that is just the law of numbers.
Combine the jaded relationships of the networking model and the complete lack of one in the advertising model, we are left with uninterested users and underperforming solutions. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe a better product has a fighting chance.
The moment you share a piece of content on the Internet, you become a producer. You are contributing to the social economy. You are the Henry Fords of the Internet.
The declassification of some governments’ spying programs have brought out new waves of anti-trust advocates. However, once these scandals have blown over in the eyes of the masses, I’m quite certain we will move to privacy and data use policies.
If you read through the Facebook and Twitter data use policies, you will notice they state, quite explicitly, that you have full rights over your data and own every bit of it. Skip a few paragraphs and you will also notice they have the rights to use, sell and share your data with platform partners. Does this sound like ownership to you? As producers, are we not entitled to profit from our labors? We contribute to the social economy by creating value, and yet they are the ones profiting from our work. It is a moral issue and it is a golden opportunity to turn things around.
The mobile-first fixation every developer is latching on to is another industry quirk I’m not too fond of. It does not leave much to the imagination. Compare social applications in the App Store and play spot the difference. If you want to build something truly unique, why not go for tablet-first? We – web designers and application developers – are moving away from chrome riddled designs to focus on content. The more screen space you have the more inventive you can be.
Have you looked at Facebook and Twitter’s web clients recently? They are all laid out in a single column. Granted they need the screen space to display their cumbersome adverts and custom backgrounds. There is lots of room for improvement.
I stumbled across something called Dunbar’s theory a few months ago, and I am inclined to agree with it. It states that any human being is unable to maintain more than 150 relationships, and yet, most of the people I know have 1000+ friends on Facebook. I am also quite partial to Twitter’s networking model. It allows us to act independently from one another and pursue our own interests without sacrificing someone else’s.
If a platform limited the number of people a user could follow, I guarantee it would have a profound impact on its networking and advertising models. People would have to consciously pick and choose who they want to pay attention to. More importantly, they would be doing so in a clutter free environment.
The next item on the future proof list is ownership. Traditional advertising relies on the network having the rights to their users’ data. That has to change: goodbye traditional advertising. The only things a social network should have to ask from its users is the permission to warehouse and index the data they share.
Social networks, just like any other company, need to make money. Subscription fees might look like the only alternative to advertising. Without advertising though, you are alienating businesses; they need a way of getting the word out. Here is one concept that hits two birds with one stone: social broking. The basic idea is to help influencers leverage their relationships and distribute content in exchange for money.
Imagine an influencer with a million followers; each of whom have consciously made the decision to include this person in their limited number of connections. This influencer can partner up with a brand and help them engage a receptive audience. Broker beware though, the unfollow button is just one click away. Imagine Facebook implementing a stop showing me ads button.
This model strengthens relationships and encourages partnerships. What could be better? It is the privatized industrialization of the Internet. We, as producers, are creating value and should pride ourselves on owning the rights to that value. We can share it, reclaim it or leverage it; just like any other commodity.
Facebook and Twitter are heading straight towards saturation – their unsustainable models will not last for much longer if someone comes out with a disruptive solution. It is time to industrialize the networking industry by creating a privacy conscious and ownership driven service. We need to move away from the traditional television model and use self-interested partnerships between brands and influencers to drive engagement.
The solution I have suggested is the one my team and I are building at Urban Cloud. The demand exists, and the people behind it are emotionally ready. It is a golden opportunity for entrepreneurs everywhere.
- Peregrine Park