Social Media and the Anti-Audience

in Great Articles, Technology

Last week, someone linked me to a fascinating NY Times blog post that was rather succinctly titled: “Most Facebook Users Have Taken A Break From the Site, Study Finds.”

It doesn’t escape me that this could be construed as a trolling article. (Alternative Title: “Most Popular Platform is Not As Popular As You Might Think.”) The results of the study in question should also be taken with a grain of salt, as they are based entirely on user survey, and no hard data from Facebook. However, the article did prompt me to think in depth about the effect of “audience” on social networking platforms.

Here’s a quote from the article:

“Facebook’s biggest challenge revolves around figuring out how to continue to profit from its rich reservoir of one billion users — and a large part of that involves keeping them entertained and returning to the site on a regular basis. Most recently, the company introduced a tool called Graph Search, a research tool that promises to help its users find answers on everything from travel recommendations to potential jobs and even love connections.”

I think it’s interesting that this is the path that Facebook has decided to take.

Reading articles like this makes Graph Search seem revolutionary and rather cool. However, I can’t help feeling like it’s a decision that ultimately reveals something rather deep about how the people at Facebook view relationships, and what they think social networking should be about.

And I’m saying this, because their opinions on social networking and their values matter. Facebook is so popular and powerful that any product they make, and any changes they make to the platform as a whole, has an effect on social networking and online socializing as a whole. (This sounds dramatic, but recall their introduction of the ‘Like’ button.) It must be absolutely insane to be a part of the product team there.

The social graph is a product that obviously caters to having a super-large group of friends. The more friends you have, the richer your personal social graph will be. In my mind, Mark Zuckerberg’s camp thinks this product is amazing and what their users want, because they consider people’s real-life relationships as akin to networking: the more the better! The more friends, the more connections/people who can help find you an apartment!

But…at this point, do people necessarily want more friends?

Maybe I should be more specific: do people want to share with more friends?

There is plenty of research out there that demonstrates that people have a hard cap on the number of true relationships that are in their lives, a hard cap on the number of people they communicate and interact with in day-to-day real life. Facebook is great because you can keep tabs on all those lesser relationships, but my question is: at what point does Facebook grow so large and inpersonal that consequences start to kick in?

Perhaps Facebook’s goal in previous years was to grow users globally, which they have done. But the consequence of growth is that across all boards, Facebook users have more friends than ever before. Back when I was in school in 2008, 2009, most people I encountered on Facebook had an average of about 300-500 Facebook friends. Nowadays, it seems the norm hits around 800-1000 friends. Having 1000 friends is great for a social graph, but is it great for sharing and personal expression? Especially if at least one of those thousand is your Mom. I’m only saying this, because social networking platforms work a lot like the stock market. A social networking platform exists only as the crowd exists. People are there because the crowd is there. Too much of something, however, and people will leave. If people are uncomfortable with expressing themselves to a crowd gone too large, they will leave for more privacy and intimacy elsewhere. Too little interaction, and people will leave, too.

“A world where you don’t understand who you’re sharing with is a world where you don’t share very much.” -Sam Lessin, product manager at Facebook

Thinking about trying to maintain an optimal balance of interaction in a product like Facebook makes me crazy, because it’s so incredibly complicated. I think Facebook is very sensitive to perceived privacy and overexposure issues. And yet, I feel like Facebook hasn’t given a great amount of thought to balance.

Another recent article from TechCrunch discusses the surprising dominance of Tumblr. The author conducted an informal (but large) survey and found that Tumblr is the most popular social media platform for people under the age of 21, beating out services such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. He hashes out an explanation of why this must be so, and included the following quote, which I found fascinating:

“Tumblr actually became huge because it is the anti-blog. What is the No. 1 reason that people quit blogging? Because they can’t find and develop an audience…But Tumblr does not conform to this calculus, and the reason is that a large percentage of Tumblr users actually don’t WANT an audience. They do not want to be found, except by a few close friends who they explicitly share one of their tumblogs with. Therefore Tumblr’s notoriously weak search functionality is A-OK with most of its user base.”

If anything, this legitimizes the claim that people will flock to services where connectivity is not the point – sharing is. It’s just interesting to me how a notoriously weak function in Tumblr is the exact same feature that Facebook strives to improve for “deeper engagement and interacton.” In any case, Rifkin makes an important distinction:

“It’s important to note that Tumblr is not replacing Facebook; it’s merely siphoning off some authentic liking and sharing, especially among young Americans. Facebook needs to exist because it’s holding down the Mom, siblings, and lame friends part of a person’s social life — the “public-private” life, if you will.”

As social networking continues to get bigger and bigger, I think it will be interesting to see the behavior and places people go to retreat from the “audience.” This is a world that hasn’t seen a social networking site grow as large as Facebook has, and I don’t think Facebook (or anyone else, for that matter), has thought about how being so large has affected their user base and site useage. In my opinion, if they truly want to think about social interaction and the actual use of social networking platforms, they should think about balance, and making it personal again.