The Last Social Network: The Future of Social Media

Mar 12, 2013
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 11.05.11 PMWe are entering a time of social fatigue. A recent survey from Pew Research found that 61% of current Facebook users have voluntarily taken a break from using Facebook for a period of several weeks or more, and 20 percent of the online adults who do not currently use Facebook say they once used the site but no longer do so.

The forecast is for decreasing use: 34% of current Facebook users say the time that they spent on the site has decreased over the past year, and only 3% say they will spend more time on the site in the coming year. Meanwhile, 27% say they will spend less time. The honeymoon is over. Among the top reasons cited for decreased time spent on Facebook are: it’s a waste of time; bored with it; content is not relevant; and just didn’t like it.

This doesn’t mean that people are abandoning social media. Overall time spent in social networking continues to rise — up 38% over the previous year according to Nielsen Media — more than any other online activity. The growth in time spent on social media is largely tied to the spread of smartphones, sales of which are accelerating overseas but slowing in the U.S. as we reach near saturation. That just means that the same pattern of skyrocketing use of social media followed by slowing use will be repeated in other countries in coming years.

Why Didn’t the Mayans Warn Us?

So what’s happening?

The best explanation I’ve read comes from social media analyst and entrepreneur Bob Zukis, who writes that people’s expectations are changing. Social media needs to serve a broader purpose than just networking. That was fun for a while but without some idea of where it can matter in a person’s life, networking cannot be an end unto itself. At some point it becomes obvious that so much of what’s on Facebook and other networks is just worthless drivel. Do we really want to know every time someone’s kid does something; or read yet another asinine cartoon; or see a poorly framed picture of something the photographer thought was remarkable; or find out their score that day in Mafia Wars.

There’s an old axiom that says that all human behavior is goal directed. It has to serve a purpose, and that purpose has to be obvious. In the absence of this the behavior will cease. Another one is that all human behavior occurs to gain pleasure or avoid pain (think about it). At first the purpose served by social networking was just the pleasure of connecting with people in a manner that had never been possible before. Sharing one’s life and sharing in others’ lives meant closer ties and building of social capital. But this quickly hits some physical limits in terms of how much time one can devote to this activity and just how many people one can really connect with — a number that’s no different than what had been true in the offline world for millennia. So now the networking has to yield some kind of a tangible benefit, and there’s nothing to suggest that spending more time on social networks will yield this benefit, whatever it may be, any faster or make it better.

The 4 Cs

Zukis writes that social technology enables new ways to connect, communicate, collaborate, and create and shape our communities. At first, people need to just understand these 4 Cs, but after that they want to use them to do something. This is true of any technology, going back to the invention of fire. Once the novelty wears off, the technology has to be seen as being capable of delivering some specific value. When that happens, the technology enters the mainstream — eventually becoming something like a utility. We become dependent on it, but we increasingly notice it less and less.

The change is in the direction of social engagement, not more networking. You can already see it happening with networks like Yelp that let users create a profile to rate and review businesses in their hometown. Yelp taps into the geolocation trend, offering consumers valuable information based on where they live. Pingsta is another example — a social network of network engineers, where membership requires being accepted by explaining your expertise and uploading your resume in the hopes of being granted an invitation or answering 20 questions posted on the site.

Social networking will also become more industrial — embedded into products that we use. The first foray in this direction is a social network that Samsung Electronics plans to unveil this year, to compete directly with Facebook. With its dominance in smartphones, Samsung’s goal is to build a private social media universe rather than cede ownership of content to Facebook. It will eventually allow users to interact with all of Samsung’s devices through social media. A user could look into the contents of their refrigerator and order groceries through Samsung’s partner Amazon.

Of course to do this you’d have to friend your refrigerator first.

Social Recruiting 2015

Given how we as recruiters always try to apply what came before to what comes next, expect the same to continue. When it comes to recruiting, nothing is more enduring than the job posting. Some genius will find a way to post jobs on bags of vegetables in the hope that candidates looking into their refrigerators will read them. Hotjobs will become cold jobs.

Recruiting will have to focus more on how we connect with candidates, i.e., build engagement. So tools that allow people to tap multiple social networks will replace direct contact with the networks. If you have an application that allows you to tweet, post content, and find people from one place, then what do you care about the individual networks where that occurs? Applications drawing on big data that can direct recruiters to the right places and times to connect with others will make it more effective to do so than the somewhat random approach we take today.

This is the future of social media: we will continue to use it and usage may even increase again, but it will recede into the background. We’ll still be using social media but which networks we use will matter less and what we accomplish will matter more.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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