The Rise and Fall of Social Media Platforms

Turn the sound off and drop the speed, and watch as the companies bounce up and then disappear.

In 2003 everyone was on Friendster, and back then “everyone” meant 3,5 million people. Their membership peaked at around 50 million, but by then Facebook had 120 million members. The company is “on a break“, and has been since 2005.

By 2005 everyone was on MySpace, but they were overtaken by YouTube in 2007 and had a peak user number of about 73 million in 2008 by which time Facebook had also overtaken them. MySpace still exists, and has tried to position itself as a platform for artists, it still has 50 million monthly active users.

By 2011 Facebook had overtaken and has remained in the top position ever since.

It’s interesting to see how the companies go up and down the charts, but I’m not sure exactly what it tells us – I think a social media platform can be financially successful serving a smaller audience. Linkedin no longer ranks in the tables, and it was purchased by Microsoft in 2016, but it’s a revenue generator for them because of it’s bespoke business tools, and the high level of influence the members have in the business world. The biggest option might not always suit your purpose. Making a profitable business out of a social media channel needs to be about more than ad revenue.

This was compiled by TNV, and they’ve sort of explained how they did it in an article, nowhere on the graphic or the article does it say what the measure is, it seems to be monthly active users (I compared published data from Weibo and Facebook), but I suspect that the Google Buzz figure is not accurate – it plateaus at 170 million, and then is overtaken by other platforms.

Their conclusion was

One thing’s for certain, judging by how many times the top spot changed hands over the past 16 years, none of the social media giants should be resting on their laurels. Really, anything can happen.

Not really. Only three companies held the top spot in the first 8 years; Friendster, MySpace and YouTube. In the last 8 years the top spot has been held by Facebook, and I expect it will take the top spot again this year. Given that “everybody” is now on Facebook it enjoys a position of being an entrenched network, the more people are on it the less likely people are to leave – even if some of us are reluctant users.

If a challenger comes for the top spot I suspect it will be from China, Sina Weibo sits in 7th spot on the 2018 data. They started out as a Chinese only, but now produce a site in both traditional and simplified Chinese to capture much of the Chinese diaspora, and have started to support other languages. Tencent has a billion users already, but is China only so was not included in the data.

Meanwhile I suspect that groups disillusioned with Facebook’s privacy and data practices will start smaller interest-based sites. I’m curious to see where this goes.

Creativity at Play #6

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to be more creative and one way I’m doing that is picking creativity exercises from the brilliant book Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 exercises to wake up your brain.

Here’s this month’s challenge

Coca Cowpie

Some of the most powerful brands on the planet right now are soft drinks. The graphic qualities of the packaging are recognisable for just about every person alive. It makes you wonder what soft drink packaging would have been like in historical times. OK, maybe you don’t wonder that, but you’re going to start today. Your challenge is to create the soft drink can of choice for any of the following historical eras.

  • Old West
  • Impressionist Painters
  • Prehistoric Times
  • Medieval Times
  • Futuristic

Create the name of the soft drink, its flavour, and what the front of the can would look like.

This question amused me so much I had to choose it. Imagine what soft drink Monet drank, or Fred Flintstone, or Chaucer’s pilgrims. Ah, the luxury of choice!

I chose medieval times, and imagined some of Chaucer’s pilgrims might have wanted to refresh themselves on a journey. I came up with the name “Holy Soda”, and the tagline “the pilgrim’s favourite pop” before I remembered that there had been a product with that name on the Dutch market, and featuring a Dutch TV presenter walking on water. Oh well.

The flavours would be herbal, and sweetened with honey – since sugar cane hadn’t been invented in Europe yet. And fermenting the drink with a little yeast starter yields a slight fizz.

I had fun drawing a number of version of pilgrims on very shaky looking horses for the label before I realised that there weren’t canned drinks back then and the pilgrims would have stored drink in earthenware or glass. So Holy Soda is in a pure green glass bottle, and has a tied label on it, with the name and the tagline, and an image of Chaucer implying his endorsement.

In my mind the pilgrims can return the bottle and get a refilled one along their journey. So not only did I invent the world’s first soda, I also invented recycling. You’re welcome.

This was the best exercise yet in terms of how creative I felt. Partly because when I first started sketching it was with pencil and paper and I didn’t impose any of the historical accuracy restrictions. But even once I imposed those (and I know I haven’t been very strict), that made it more interesting to think about what would have been possible while retaining the concept of a refreshing non-alcoholic drink.

I’d do this again and use other time periods, and I’d even use it as a brainstorm starting exercise in a training course.

The new way of working is broken

The “new way of working” where we are all interconnected and all available all of the time doesn’t work.

Companies are adding tools to their ecosystem every year to solve specific problems, and each tool seems to have its own notification and chat system.  Most of these tools are driving towards “real time communication” and this idea has been sold as a great feature, driving faster innovation and greater collaboration.

We already know that multitasking doesn’t work, it may even cause permanent brain damage. But we don’t need to neuroscientists to know that it’s hard to concentrate and deliver quality work when we are interrupted, and most of the tools supposedly delivering the “new way of working” are highly interruptive.

The default setting for our email system includes an icon notification, a pop up and a sound as the default notification. It’s easy enough to change but every so often a reboot will reset it to default. Imagine anyone thinking that a sound notification would be a good idea in an open plan office.

But is “real-time communication” a good idea? In a crisis it might be necessary, but most of the time we’re not working in crisis mode. In a recent Recode Decode interview Jason Fried said

…as a primary method of communication, real-time communication is a bad idea in most workplaces most of the time…People cannot get their work done at work anymore because they’re being constantly interrupted by all these real-time tools.

The constant interruptions break our focus, and it can take more than 20 minutes to recover our concentration. This cannot be good for productivity, every person I know has developed strategies to reduce the interruptions, including;

  • no sound or vibration notifications
  • removing apps with high notification rates from the desktop/homescreen
  • turn off notifications on apps (weirdly this isn’t always possible – even temporarily)
  • close email and any social media tools to allow focus
  • use airplane mode to appear unavailable
  • book appointments in outlook to do focused work – which triggers a “busy status” on skype

But could we also call on tool designers to rethink their notification systems from “push” to “pull”, perhaps they could allow us to schedule mini-breaks from notifications. Could system designers set up notification hubs where we collect the notifications for new work? Or could notifications get really smart and only appear when we’re working on the relevant project?

Imagine how much we would get done in a day without interruptions.

image via pixabay 

Green Washing

Ever seen a product marketed as being good for the environment – in a plastic bottle?

Consumers are looking for sustainable options in their purchasing, and companies follow that trend. Sometimes the change is has an environmental impact, sometimes not. It can be hard to tell. When a company markets their products as sustainable but spends more on marketing than sustainable sources, or produces misleading marketing or packaging, or promotes their product as simply better than alternatives – that’s greenwashing.

Definition

Greenwashing is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice. Greenwashing can make a company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is.

Some Examples

Starbucks announced last year that they would ban straws and instead introduce a “sippy cup” lid. Turns out that the lids use more plastic than the straws and are unlikely to be better for the environment. But they got good press at the time of the announcement.

TIP: If you’re worried about straws then skip the straw/plastic beaker all together, and opt for a reusable cup. Starbucks and many cafés will make coffee in your reusable cup and may even offer a discount.

Walmart joined the sustainability trend, launching a “go green” sustainability campaign. Given that Walmart customers are price sensitive this was always going to be a challenge, and the report card is mixed. They’ve reduced foodwaste, and increased recycling of plastic. Their efforts to shift to 100% sustainable energy have so far (in more than 10 years) only got to 4% according to the EPA.

TIP: if you’re trying to assess claims look for agency reporting on data, and beware of percentage improvement, a move from 1% sustainable energy to 4% is a 400% improvement.

Coca cola – and other beverage companies – are working on “plant-based” plastics, that will be biodegradable. In some countries these bottles are already on the market, in some cases they’re still as much as 70% plastic, and about 80% of beverage containers still end up in landfill.

TIP: If you’re worried about this source of plastic stop buying drinks in single use plastic. Ask for tap water in restaurants, carry a water bottle from home (assuming you live somewhere with safe water).

In these cases the companies are trying to do something genuine, it’s just not easy to change people’s behaviour or build new resource infrastructure. These are not the worst examples of greenwashing.

Airbus took the skies in 2008 using the slogan “A better environment inside and out” for the Airbus A380, even putting on the planes’ tail. But air transport is a highly polluting industry, putting millions of tons of CO2 into the environment every year. Their argument seems to be that because of the scale of the plane less pollution occurs per kilo transported – true, but in the interests of honesty in marketing perhaps the slogan should be “not quite as bad for the environment as our old planes (which are still flying)”. Hmmm, not so snappy, needs work.

Volkswagen’s emission scandal which came to light in 2015 was possibly the most extreme example of greenwashing to date. Volkswagen not only made false claims about the emissions from their cars, the emissions devices in half a million cars themselves were modified to pass emission tests over a period of forty years. One good outcome, I suspect this scandal led to countries adding legal requirements for ecological claims to companies’ marketing.

Legal?

Probably not, most countries have advertising standards requiring that statements in an ad are verifiable. Some countries  -Australia, Canada, Norway, the US – have including requirements for companies to back their environmental claims with data the advertising standards.

Even so, as a consumer it’s worth keeping a cynical eye on claims of “greener”, “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable”, and “sustainable”.

 

Image via pixabay

Just Stop It: Twitter Notifications

Just Stop it

Having used twitter for many years, on two personal accounts and one work one, I’ve been using it less lately. And there’s a simple reason – the icon is no longer on my phone’s home screen.

Most apps give you a notification count in a little circle on the app,twitter icon six notifications in the image to the right you see that I have six notifications on my twitter account. It tells you that six things have happened on my account since I last looked. It used to be six interactions; new followers, people commenting on my tweets, and retweets. But about two years ago Twitter added notifications about updates and interesting links to its notifications tabs, and I was really quickly overwhelmed. I wasn’t alone. It’s Twitter’s effort to soak up more of your attention and keep you on their platform longer, it hasn’t worked Twitter still lags behind Facebook by miles, with 2.7 minutes a day and 58 minutes a day respectively.

Here’s what twitter says it does:

Here’s what that means, Twitter recommended I’d be interested in tweets from these two gentlemen, you’ll note that I’m not following either of them. Mr Verbruggen’s tweet was in Dutch (I tweet in English) and mentioned him having a shower and a beer. I’m sure Mr Verbruggen is a perfectly nice man, I just don’t know why Twitter thinks I will be interested in his bathing habits. The other tweet was from Henry Winter, a sports writer. I am rubbish about sport, I only care about tennis and maybe the Silver Ferns when they play Australia I’m pretty sure I’ve never tweeted about football.  But Twitter thinks I might be interested in a book about English football?

There seemed to be no way to opt out of this nonsense, and the twitter “recommendations” quickly overwhelmed the genuine interactions.

I got fed up. I moved the Twitter icon off my home screen on my phone, my twitter interaction declined. I once used it every day, It used to be my news feed, I followed people in tech, NGOs, companies I like, people I’d met at conferences and comedians. I barely look at it now except when I make a blog post.

Twitter’s efforts to engage me on the platform have had exactly the opposite effect. I haven’t even added the app to my new phone.

Please Twitter, just stop it.

And would someone please notify me when this is fixed? Thanks.

Creativity at Play #5

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to be more creative and one way I’m doing that is picking creativity exercises from the brilliant book Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 exercises to wake up your brain.

Here’s this month’s challenge

Batteries Not Included

It seems everything has a starter kit. From poker to guitars to video games, if you’re just starting out and you want all the necessary things you’ll need to begin, there’s a starter kit available. Too bad someone couldn’t have left us a creative starter kit when we first started our jobs. It’s time to become that someone. Your challenge is to create a starter kit for your job. Create something to give to anyone starting in your occupation or a starter kit for someone just beginning at your place of employment. Include a “Quick Glance” instruction sheet, something to give them the essential advice to succeed right away. What would you want to have known when you started?

This is a bit more real for me, as I took on a new role in February and I had a new colleague join me in April, which has made me think about what a new person needs to know. Here’s my first pass at a secret guide for a digital team member.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Did this exercise break out the creativity? Yes, it was fun to think about the REAL content you need, as opposed to the usual official HR-approved list. Will I really produce this as a guide? not alone – it could be a fun collaboration project. Going through this and playing with how information is presented has inspired me to think about a project I’m working on a little differently though, we’re creating some SharePoint training, most of it will be connecting to existing Microsoft content, but some is company specific. It might be more fun to present it like this than as a pdf, let’s check with end users first.

Facebook’s Fall from Grace

Following the attack at a mosque in Christchurch in which 50 people were murdered, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called on Facebook to do better;

“They are the publisher, not just the postman. It cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”

She has a point, during the shooting in Christchurch the shooter live streamed his rampage through two mosques. I have seen a couple of screen grabs from the video and the images look like a very graphic shooter game. We now know that the first man to see him at the first mosque greeted him with the words “Welcome, Brother” and presumably this greeting was recorded on the live stream. It’s now illegal to publish the video stream in New Zealand, and the article where I saw these images has been taken down. To give Facebook credit once the New Zealand police alerted them I understand their Global Escalations Teams worked to remove instances of the live stream from their platform. But technically, under US law, they cannot be held responsible in court.

The video may still be out there, I’m not interested in seeing it but when researching for this article I found an interesting autocomplete in a google search, and it seems the effort to remove the video was not perfect.

In the Easter shootings across Sri Lanka which had a significantly higher death toll, their government worked quickly to block social media, and continue to circumscribe citizens’ use of social media. It’s not the first time the Sri Lankan government have blocked social media due to concerns about the spread of extremism via social media sadly.

How is this possible?

Social media platforms have benefited from a piece of US law, section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act which says;

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”

It’s an important part of maintaining free speech on the internet and it means I’m not liable for comments someone leaves on this blog, and nor is WordPress. The EFF explains in more detail.

More scandal

This isn’t the only issue Facebook has been faced with, last year they admitted to a security breach that may have affected 90 million accounts.

There are also growing concerns about health impacts as research piles up about the harmful impact of social media, particularly on children. There’s also evidence that anti-vaccination activists are targeting ads to people likely to be wavering on the vaccination question, and the number of Measles outbreaks keeps growing.

More famously their algorithms have undermined democracy in at least two countries. This is via the link to Cambridge Analytica, here’s how that worked as explained by journalist Carole Cadwalladr;

With all this scandal, how is the company doing?

Well. Facebook is doing well.

Revenue continues to grow, user numbers continue to grow. User numbers have apparently levelled off slightly in the US and in Europe, but it’s not clear that this is due to scandals.

Facebook currently makes more than 1.6 million USD per employee, 98% of their revenue is from advertising (2018 annual figures).  Which begs the question of just who the customer is. Remember that they don’t pay for any of the content placed on Facebook – in contrast to, say, a glossy magazine like Vogue which at least provides some content to dilute the advertisements. So we, the users are the content providers and our attention is the commodity sold to advertisers.

Regulation Required

It seems this isn’t a problem that the free market can solve. We’re now living with a platform that is with us 24/7, pulls together a global community of almost half the world’s population, and holds data on our every move – and tends to seek more data rather than less. One way that Facebook has grown is by acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp, and the company is now so rich that it can buy any competitor thus stifling innovation. Governments have seen the impact on their country – in Sri Lanka, in New Zealand with devastating effects – and in their elections. During the campaigning to appeal the 8th amendment in Ireland Facebook banned all ads that were funded from outside Ireland, showing that it is possible to contain the damage of foreign influence. The EU put the GDPR legislation in place, in an attempt to protect citizens against the power that Facebook and other social media companies have accrued, in response Facebook moved millions of accounts from Irish servers to US servers – out of the reach of EU legislation.

The US is also stepping up, with the FTC investigating Facebook’s use of personal data and a hefty 5 billion USD fine looming over the company. Even that might not be enough, there’s a bipartisan call for tougher protections on consumer privacy.

I started writing this post in December, it’s been re-written more than any other post I’ve ever made, but every time I thought I was ready to hit publish something else happened. I nearly delayed again to analyse the information coming out of F8 and more analysis on the appearance of a change in Facebook’s policy on privacy, there’s a pretty good analysis on the Vergecast – they’re not convinced and nor am I.

Image via pixabay