Social networks may not be around forever

The man who set up the most popular social network in Russia axed all of his online friends in one fell swoop on Monday. Having them, he wrote, was so 2010. That may be a sign of the times: Predictions from a few years ago that social networks would lose ground to messenger apps appear to be coming true.

Mr Pavel Durov has often been called Russia's Mark Zuckerberg because he set up a Facebook clone called VKontakte, which quickly beat the original in Russia because it became the medium for sharing pirated movies and music. Mr Durov lost control of the network long ago, and the piracy is somewhat less rampant, but VK is still far ahead of the competition in its home country.

Mr Durov, meanwhile, has funded the development of a messenger app, Telegram. Based in Berlin and structured as non-profit, the messenger has about 100 million monthly active users - formidable, yet far fewer than industry leaders such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (which claim a billion users each). He explained his decision to purge: Everyone that a person needs has long been on messengers. It is pointless and time-consuming to maintain increasingly obsolete friend lists on public networks. Reading other people's news is brain clutter. To clear out room for the new, one should not fear getting rid of old baggage.

Mr Durov is right when he says everyone is on messengers these days. Back in 2015, messengers overtook social networks in terms of total active users. And back in 2014, when Facebook separated Messenger from its main offering, Mr Zuckerberg himself acknowledged the trend, saying that "messaging is one of the few things people do more than social networking". And the growth of messengers is faster than that of social networks: Facebook Messenger's mobile audience increased by 36 per cent between July 2015 and June last year, while Facebook's grew by 19 per cent, according to Comscore's mobile app report.

By measures that register actual human engagement - rather than fake accounts and bot activity - Facebook does not seem to be growing at all. Last year, its users generated about 25 per cent less original content than in 2015. The time users spent on Facebook dropped from 24 hours in mid-2015 to 18.9 hours in February, Comscore reported.

There is no reliable data on why humans are less enthusiastic about social networks today than a couple of years ago. But, chances are, it has to do with fatigue from living in a public cage, irritation with the growing amount of invasive advertising and, perhaps, belated privacy concerns, as advertising often seems to follow browsing histories and the content of supposedly private messages. Then, there is the prevalence of low quality content and the potential of being confronted by disturbing acts of video streaming. A grisly murder video posted to Facebook on Easter Sunday is only the latest example of vaunted Facebook algorithms being powerless to police the vast network and cut off dangerous exhibitionism that, incidentally, is only a step away from what any social network addict does with his private life.

There is no reliable data on why humans are less enthusiastic about social networks today than a couple of years ago. But, chances are, it has to do with fatigue from living in a public cage, irritation with the growing amount of invasive advertising and, perhaps, belated privacy concerns, as advertising often seems to follow browsing histories and the content of supposedly private messages.

Messengers are a safer ground: They are about personal communication, not broadcasting. Mr Zuckerberg, who has been touring the United States in what some see as a pre-presidential campaign and, others, as a series of focus groups to turn Facebook into a community-building tool, appears to have seen this trend coming long ago.

Facebook, after all, owns the two most popular messenger apps. If the numbers keep shifting from social networks to messengers, advertisers will figure out that something is wrong with the platforms they have been paying for. YouTube's advertising boycott is likely just a precursor of things to come, including better analysis of usage and engagement metrics. When the ad-based social network model is challenged - or even before that - Facebook will be forced to monetise its messenger offerings. That may undermine the quality of these products, as advertising did with the social networks.

Snap, now forced to make money as a public company, may already be experiencing the fallout. The time users spend on it is declining.

After having hijacked user attention and advertising money from professional content producers, social networks may be facing a reality check. As people figure out what they want from the digital revolution, there may be far less money in facilitating content sharing than in creating the content itself. Instead of submitting to the mercy of Facebook's massive audience, traditional publishers should have faith that the public will always demand professionally crafted content, no matter where it is shared. The social networks may look like all-powerful intermediaries now, but they may not be around forever.

BLOOMBERG VIEW


  • The writer was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti, and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2017, with the headline 'Social networks may not be around forever'. Print Edition | Subscribe