A few months ago, I did what would have been the unthinkable several years back: I deleted my Facebook account.
I had increasingly become disengaged with the social network (disclaimer: I remain on others). It didn’t make me feel closer to friends; it didn’t make me happier; it took up my time with minimal in return. Enough was enough.
But before you’re too impressed by my low key social media activism, by no means am I a trailblazer. In a 2018 study, 42% of adults said they have taken a break from checking said-platform for several weeks, and 26% said they had deleted the app from their phone.¹ And it’s not just Facebook, surveys show that at a wider level, the number of people leaving social media is growing².
Which led me to wonder, what’s not working with social media?
Over the past few weeks, I — along with the rest of the Supernode Global team — have been developing an investment thesis. This follows the wider 2018 research project that Mike discusses in a previous post.
My thesis started with the very question above: what’s not working with social media? The more I dig into this, the more I am struck by the duality of responses to social media: we are all connected yet there is considerable anecdotal evidence that people are feeling increasingly alone.
So what do we, as humans, fundamentally need from relationships, how the context to this has changed and what we need from a social media platform to create an actual connection?
What drives relationships?
Since I quit Facebook, in truth, there has been no negative impact on my relationships… other than the inevitable linger of FOMO. In several cases, there has been a positive turn as I have been forced to engage more fully rather than use a short-cut, a double-tap or a quick comment.
Engagement in relationships is crucial not only to my sparse social life but also to the sense of belonging that is a fundamental part of human happiness. In their paper, The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation³, Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary unpack how people are driven by the need for stable, enduring relationships (in limited numbers rather than hundreds) that hinge around concern for the welfare of each other.
For a long time, how we lived naturally enabled the growth of such relationships, as we gathered in close-knit communities — villages, towns, tribes. We knew fewer people but we had frequent, stable, caring relationships with them. We belonged.
This style of living was anchored in that people lived in close proximity to where they grew up. In fact, up until around the 1990s most people in the UK lived at most five miles from where they themselves were born⁴.
This meant that relationships typically had three characteristics:
- Relationships tended to span many years, if not lifetimes.
- People had fewer relationships but would know each individual better as a result.
- Relationships were matrixed. That is to say, if Alexis and Bob know each other, but also both know Claire, not to mention their mutual friend Delia, then the group dynamic benefits each individual relationship.
But that all changed.
So what has changed from the past hundreds of years to now?
I believe a lot of this is down to two fundamental shifts that make it harder for us to make strong, long-lasting relationships:
First, we moved house:
Today the majority of Brits now live over 100 miles from where they were born⁴ compared to five miles as noted earlier. No longer do we live next door to the same people we grew up with, but instead we are far, far away. And this is important — a key pillar of building community is to have “people who…collectively experience life together”⁵.
The more we move, the more we sever our ties to each other.
Second, (surprise) is the rise of the internet:
This and of course the rise of smartphones and easy communications over the last 20 years. So many different aspects tie into this but simply put, we increasingly chose convenient communication over in-person or even phone calls.
The latter is important because it turns out that social media — as it is today — is not a fit substitute for these village-style relationships. It is not good at building the engagement that Baumeister and Leary deem crucial to our happiness and sense of belonging.
This difference can be shown at a chemical level: in 2012, University of Wisconsin psychologists ran an experiment on young girls that tested cortisol levels to identify when spikes of oxytocin (aka the ‘cuddle chemical’) occurred⁶ thus reducing cortisol (aka the stress hormone).
The girls who saw their mothers in person spiked most, reducing their cortisol. Those who heard their mother’s voice saw a similarly positive effect — but not to the same degree.
Those receiving a text message from their mum? No impact.
Social media is missing the mark.
So sure, we are not going to go back to living in villages but we still don’t have the new, digital, true replacement.
Social networks are great at many things — connections, network, communication channels, events, broadcasting. But, they are not designed (in my belief) to create long-term, caring engagement with loved ones.
For example, users are typically driven to gain high numbers of followers through constant low-engagement interactions. However, this is counter-intuitive as relationships are subject to the laws of diminishing returns as revealed in Baumeister and Leary’s research:
“the formation of social attachments [is] subject to diminishing returns, that is people should experience less satisfaction on the formation of such extra relationships [beyond a base number], as well as less distress on terminating them”³.
Once you have your quota, you care less about each next one. You don’t care that your Nth friend is added on Facebook and certainly you don’t care when they leave (as I realised when no one noticed I left Facebook).
At the heart of it, we are looking for personal engagement. Facebook will help you to find out your friend’s last three holidays, post a few smiley faces, but it isn’t helpful if you want to know how your friend is feeling.
I return to Facebook not simply because it was the one that inspired this investigation but also because it is the one that feels like it almost fulfils this need.
Where Snapchat and Twitter are for broadcasting (although interestingly in Twitter’s 2018 Q4 earnings call they revealed that they are looking to make it more ‘conversational’ so watch this space⁷) and Instagram is for snapshots of life, Facebook seemingly is for relationships yet falls short of the mark.
In fact, I believe those closest to enabling these engaging connections are communication tools rather than social networks: Skype, Facetime, and — more recently — Voice Memos. However, they lack the network structure that is vital in building a wider community.
I started with the question: what’s not working with social media. More than ever I am convinced that there is a fundamental need that isn’t being met.
Social media is excellent in so many ways but there remains space for something new to facilitate the manner of relationships that we, as humans, truly thrive on.
In my next post, I’ll be looking at what I think this elusive solution looks like and what early indicators we’ve seen in the market.
Until then -
If you’re building the next iteration of social media, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alternatively, tweet me nice things @phoebescriven.
- Pew Research, 2018
- Marketing Dive Survey, 2018
- The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation, Research Gate, 1995
- Ancestry, 2016
- We All Need Our Village, Relevant Magazine, 2009
- The Secret to Long and Happy Life, Book Review, The Guardian, 2015
- Twitter 2018 Q4 Earnings Call, Transcript