Social media’s troubled adolescence

Social media's troubled adolescence

Last week I spent some time at the Sydney sessions of Social Media Week and the message from panels and keynotes is the industry is struggling to find how it fits into society.

Three weeks ago LinkedIn’s senior management were in Sydney describing their ambition to be a global publishing platform, something that’s at odds with the company’s success in becoming the dominant professional social network.

Compounding the feeling of confusion about what LinkedIn is, CEO Jeff Weiner followed up with a discussion of how the service had an ethical crisis over its entry into the Chinese market.

A conflict of interest

During the Social Media Week sessions panellists and the audiences agonised over their struggles to engage audiences or how social media services, particularly Facebook, were limiting their reach.

Facebook has a particular problem; its users want to know about their friends, families and interests while not really caring about brands, but its advertisers – the people who pay the bills – desperately want to embed themselves into their followers’ lives.

So Facebook has to throttle back the amount of brand content and marketing material to prevent users being irritated by excessive advertising. Understandably advertisers get upset with this, although it’s hard to feel much sympathy for businesses and agencies who thought they had a free broadcasting channel in the social media platforms.

Twitter, and every other social media platform, is suffering similar problems, albeit without the revenues and stock market valuation.

An even more stark illustration of social media’s immaturity is the industry’s reaction to privacy with, at best, a shrug about concerns over the handling of users’ information – this is something that will almost certainly damage the industry in coming years.

One of the problems for the social media industry could be that it’s overvalued and overhyped; while there’s no doubt a valid role for the services in modern life, most of the companies won’t turn out to be as valuable as they and their investors hope.

Start-struck platforms

Part of that quest to increase value results in probably the saddest adolescent aspect of social media: The need to be liked by the cool kids.

Like a lonely teenager, social media platforms are often star-struck: LinkedIn has gone through its phase of being in the thrall of high profile influencers for its publishing function; Twitter desperately courts celebrities; and Google Plus fawns towards music stars, all of whom seemed exempt from the real name policies that caused so much grief for the company and its users a few years back.

For the social media industry, adolescence is a tough time with many struggles about its own identity, which for businesses means we have treat the services like unpredictable teenagers who might hurt us without meaning to do so.

So tread carefully when dealing with social media platforms and be careful about investing too much in services that are almost certainly going to be very different in a few years’ time.

Paul Wallbank is the publisher of Networked Globe, his personal blog Decoding The New Economy charts how our society is changing in the connected century.


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