The end of the Facebook era
And the division of labor of social media
I’ve been off of Facebook for more than six months. My reason for quitting was primarily because I felt aimless, scrolling through an endless feed of content with no particular theme or underlying motivation — no greater purpose for generating awareness, spreading knowledge or happiness; even the strengthening of community which social media intends — or at least claims — to do is not being successfully achieved by Facebook.
My life has improved since then, for many reasons, not least of which being: the realization and consequent relief of the incredible awkwardness of the idea of posting personal updates to an audience of hundreds of people, of whom only a few dozen (if even that) actually care.
But aside from my personal life-standard improvement as a result of my grand departure, there is growing mindset — a consciousness even — toward the idea that use of the platform might be doing more harm than good, being spread across a larger audience, beyond the usual haters and naysayers.
There is plenty of evidence that this is the case, but at this point the conclusion is clear: at Facebook has gotten too big such that it’s collapsing under it’s own weight. It has taken on too many roles; too many functions. Not only that, but the company seems to have an interest in acquiring any social application which has a network large enough to someday pose a threat. This makes me question, what is the motive here? Is Facebook’s goal really to connect people, or is it to maintain their grasp on the largest hoard of data in history, for the sake of maintaining their power and dominance in the industry? — not so wholesome an objective, it would seem after all.
From a technological perspective, this is quite the accomplishment. But from a social perspective, it’s an abhorrent one. Facebook’s power and dominance are a threat to society itself, having the capability to influence people’s emotions, threaten democracy, invade privacy, and potentially exacerbate violent conflict.
That’s why, instead of counting on Facebook to become more responsible, we might consider accepting its downfall as a natural process which cannot be changed. The solution is, therefore, not to create a more responsible version of Facebook, but to limit the mission of a platform so it cannot get as large and unmaintainable as Facebook has become. To do that, we need to move away from all-purpose social platforms, and start specializing.
The future of social is not all-purpose
The future of social will take the form of multiple specialized platforms, each tailored to a specific audience revolving around a particular theme or type of content. This is what I call, the division of labor of social media. Different platforms will serve a different user need, or handle a particular type of content. That doesn’t mean a community for each hobby (Facebook for golf, Facebook for Disney fans, etc.), it just means that people will have a specific purpose in mind when they choose to logon to a specific platform (“I want to see sports updates”, “I want to hear newly released songs”, etc). Several existing content websites and services are fulfilling this need simply by adding more social features, thereby becoming a hub for sharing and discussion of content of that particular theme.
For example, YoutTube has recently added a built-in a private messaging feature. This means, to share YouTube videos to friends, you don’t need to copy the link into Facebook messenger; you can do it right there. The same goes for SoundCloud for music, AngelList and ProductHunt for startups, Yelp for food, Medium for writing, Pinterest for arts and crafts, Linkedin for careers. What all these platforms have in common is that they are social, and specialized.
The benefits of specialization are clear
Each platform, having been built with a specific scope in mind, having defined what type of content it will handle, can then allocate resources to handling that content in the best way possible, hiring people with an intricate understanding of the creation and proliferation of such content, knowledge of the policies and regulations surrounding it, and perhaps most importantly, the trends and motivating factors which keep standards high. Furthermore, such specialized platforms can maximize the value of the community by understanding the habits and common use-cases of the users within it, and tailoring their features to capitalize on such behavior. As more content-based platforms start to refine and optimize their features to the specific content and the consumers thereof , the purpose of Facebook starts to wither. Co-founder of Reddit Alexis Ohanian seems to agree:
Instead of social networks, Ohanian said people increasingly want to belong to a smaller community of those who are like-minded.
We will start to see more platforms arise, specializing in different types of content for different communities, each of which will start to take chunks out of Facebook’s market share, bit by bit, with populations of users migrating to those platforms which better suit their needs. In the future, we will see new platforms specializing in each of the use-cases Facebook currently serves and more.
Every great empire has its fall. At a certain point, there become too many factors and variables to regulate, many of which are interconnected and in constant flux that not even the most advanced AI can reconcile them all to an optimized steady state. Rather than prolong that demise, we would be wise to begin to move on, and revise the digital media ecosystem, through the only logical next step, and that is the division of labor of social platforms.
In the future, Facebook might be seen as a case study — an example of the potential of what the Web can do. But with the caveat that just because it can, doesn’t mean it should.