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.

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

Twitter Basics; Part Three

It’s time to talk about follower strategies and tips for building a solid following. I spoke about this briefly in Part Two, but I’m diving into detail here.

My goal with twitter is to discover new content and new expertise. I also want to share my own content through twitter, so I have tried to build a following of people who will be interested in what I write about. This means I look for people with interesting expertise in the fields I work in and follow them.

Six Ways to Gain and Maintain Followers

1 Follow People You Know

Twitter has been around since 2006, and now has 330 million users, so you do know people who are already there. People who already know you through work or professional connections are most likely to follow you back.

Search using the full name that they usually use, if someone is using twitter professionally they want to be found and their name will come up in the search results. Only one person can have the handle @JohnSmith, but an unlimited number can use the name in their profile and a search will find them all.

Click on “People” in the top bar to list accounts using that name. Twitter lists anything close to your spelling, which means that when I searched for John Smith, I got also got Nick Smith. You can refine your search with more terms, John Smith digital for example. But Twitter search engine seems to only look in profiles, so unless John Smith has added digital to his profile it won’t help.

2 Ask People to Follow You

You’ve probably already got an account on LinkedIn in or on Facebook, ask your friends, colleagues and connections to join you on Twitter.

Create a short post telling people you’re on Twitter, include your twitter handle, and invite them to follow you.

3 Follow the Followed

Search for industry experts or thought leaders in your field, follow them for their great content and then check who they follow. When you’re starting out look for people with followers in the hundreds or thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands – they’re more likely to follow back.

4 Hashtags

Search for a topic of interest and find relevant hashtags. If you’re interested in social media use by companies for example then #socbiz is a relevant hashtag, if you’re working on building leadership skills then #leadershipmatters has thoughtful content. Look for the hashtags associated with events, the Digital Workplace conference coming up in June will use #DW18 for conference related tweets.

By searching on the hashtag you can see who is actively tweeting on these subjects/events, and follow them.

5 Publish Your Twitter Handle

Include your twitter handle on your LinkedIn profile, you add it under your contact and personal info. Add it to your profile on your blog or website if you have one. Include it in any posts you publish, it’s common to see twitter handles included in footers on LinkedIn or Medium, sometimes as the author’s preferred method of contact.

6 Follow Back

This is so important to maintain a following, if someone follows you, follow them back.

I’ll follow anyone back on twitter who is vaguely relevant to my themes of digital, communication, innovation and leadership.

Follower Limits

Twitter has put in place some limits around follower numbers in an effort to stop “spammy” behaviour.

You can follow up to 5000 accounts, although only 1000 per day. After that you can only follow more accounts if your own following/follower ratio is close to 1 (the actual acceptable ratio is not published). If you want to follow every politician in the world (for example) you would hit the limit pretty quickly, but there is a way around it by using lists (more in the next post).

I regularly search for new people to follow, and unfollow inactive accounts, but only perhaps 20 at a time. On Twitter aggressively following and unfollowing behaviour on twitter can also result in a ban.

These limits are put in place to limit spamming, and in a normal management of your account you probably won’t encounter them but it’s good to know they exist.


Your third assignment is all about followers

1: Publish twitter handle

Add your twitter handle to your LinkedIn profile (under the contact information section). If your Facebook page is somewhat professional you can add it there as well. 

2: Hashtags

Search for hashtags in your field, just pick the keywords associated with your job and look for relevant content. Then see who is tweeting that content and follow them.

3: Follow the followed

Search for 10 people who absolute leaders in your field; influencers, thought leaders, and innovators who are active on twitter. Then look at who they follow, check the profile to find people whose interests match yours, and check their twitter account to make sure they’re active.

Aim to add 40-70 new people in total from tasks 2 and 3.


Image: Twitter via pixabay  |  CC0 1.0

Engagement Ladder

Engagement Ladder

There’s a figure that gets quoted about engagement; 1, 9, 90. Which is a ratio representation of engagement.  For everyone person who contributes content, 9 might like it and 90 will see it. It’s a little simplistic, and there are more forms of engagement now so it’s helpful to think of the engagement ladder.

Engagement Ladder

Starting from the lowest rung of the ladder

Seen / Read

How many people saw your image, watched your video, read your content. This is the lowest level of engagement as it requires the least amount of effort from your visitor. It’s roughly equivalent to reach, although you might want to consider how much of your content was viewed or read.

It doesn’t tell you much about the person’s attitude to your brand, or their likelihood to purchase. We’ve all read stuff we don’t agree with, sometimes because we don’t agree with it. To compare this to a classic sales funnel it’s at least awareness.

Liked / Facebook Reaction

The next rung on the engagement ladder is a like, a G+, a Facebook reaction. It’s low commitment, a one click easy reaction, Facebook reactions tell you a more. Personally I’m pretty quick to like posts on Facebook or Instagram, much less likely to do so on Twitter.  As likes are visible to others this level of engagement does indicate that the visitor has a possible interest in your brand – but be careful. Facebook rates all reactions the same, but a thousand “angry” reactions won’t translate to sales for your company.

Commented

The third rung is comments, or reactions to your posts. If you’re posting on social issues, as Banana Republic did in the screenshot below, you’re likely to attract a lot of comments.

It takes more effort to comment on a post, positive comments are a public endorsement of your brand. It’s going to take some effort on your part to analyse the comments, or to parse the sentiment analysis provided by social listening tools.

facebook comments

Shared

If a person shares a post, retweets, embeds your video, they’re increasing your reach as your content is now (potentially) reaching a new audience.  They’ve also added your brand to their online reputation, this doesn’t map easily to a step in the sales process, but sits between evaluation and decision. They’ve added your company to a mental list for possible future purchases.

CTA

Some of your content might included a specific Call To Action, or CTA. For many companies this is exactly how they sign up more customers or subscribers, you can see some examples of great CTAs in this article from HubSpot. (And I’ve just shared content from a brand I have never been a customer of, but I’m aware of them, and they remain a potential supplier if I’m ever in a purchase decision for their services in the future).

Your CTA might be a subscribe, follow, download, or purchase option.

Created Content

The ultimate brand accolade, when users generate their own content related to your brand. But it’s a tricky area, with brands needing to pay attention to copyright and privacy issues.

Spotify have taken the step of using the real titles of subscribers’ lists in their own ads, it’s a campaign strategy that is infinite since their users will always be creating new lists. It resonates with their audience really well – seeing your own list picked up for an ad is cool, or whatever the kids are calling it these days.

When your customers take the step of creating content around your brand and sharing it you can bet you’ve got the ultimate level of engagement.

Image: Ladder | Rich Bowen  |  CC BY 2.0

The Gig Economy

We’re in the gig economy, we can order food, dinner delivered, or cookies delivered at midnight if you’re in New York. We can share our spare room for cash on AirBnB, our trips with Uber, or garden tools we’re not using.  We can have someone visit us to hang a picture, build a bookcase or unblock a drain. In France you can have someone do your homework. The people providing the platforms say it unleashes innovation and offers exciting opportunities, it’s supposed to be good for us.

The companies offering platforms to enable all of this are lauded as disruptive and for a long time new companies were launched and cited as “the Uber of X“, there is even a book called “The Uber of Everything” which has the positive-sounding subtitle “How the Freed Market Economy is disrupting regulated industries and delighting customers”.

I’m all for disruption, but sometimes the disruption isn’t where you expect. Take AirBnB, there are a lot of articles about how AirBnB is disrupting the hotel industry, and it’s a service I’ve used in half a dozen cities. But it’s not the hotel industry that’s feeling the impact in Amsterdam, hotel nights are on the rise up 7% in Q1 2016, and numerous hotels have opened since airBnB launched in 2008. What has been affected is the rental market, with hundreds of apartments taken off the rental market. Amsterdam is not the only place to see an impact on the stock of rental apartments, and the city has now put limits in place.

Uber started out as a ride sharing platform, and it has a lot of benefits in terms of lowering congestion, lowering car pollution, reducing parking problems in cities. It has, according to some reports, lowered the rate of drink driving. There are a lot of positives. But there is also a downside. The industry that Uber set out to disrupt is the taxi industry seeing it as over-regulated and ripe for reform. When I hear the term “regulated industry” I always myself “who benefits?” In the case of the taxi industry there was a certain amount of industry protection to stop new entrants into the market, which maintains higher taxi prices. However it also protected drivers, allowing them to have a reasonable work week, and it protected passengers because drivers were licenced – as opposed to the ‘random driver‘ you might get as your Uber driver. Uber drivers started out as freelancers, part of the gig economy, but many of them now depend on their Uber income and are starting to fight back with attempts to unionise in Seattle and New York.

If we follow the money, it’s accruing to the platform owners. Uber’s revenue in 2016 is around USD6.5billion and AirBnB’s reached USD1.7billion. These two companies are doing very well out of the sharing economy. But there’s one platform that’s doing even better, Facebook earned almost USD27billion in 2017 almost all from advertising.

Other platforms began in one form and have evolved to others. Amazon began as a retail outlet and Netflix as a movie subscription service. Both have evolved into content creators each with a huge, somewhat overlapping, customer/subscriber base.  Although some local competitors exist, it would be almost impossible for a new entrant to compete with either platform on a global scale. This is fast becoming detrimental to those who work in creative fields.

For digital platforms the economics tend towards a “winner takes all” outcome, that is we end up with a single monopolistic player in each type of platform that evolves. This is because even if there’s room for several players in a market, ride-sharing for example, a platform can outspend –  or outsmart – competitors to acquire all the suppliers or all the customers. Once it has all the players on one side of the transaction it’s almost guaranteed acquisition of all those on the other side.

Stakeholder management theory says that a company must balance the interests of employees, customers and investors otherwise business model not sustainable, but in the case of platforms there is an imbalance of power allowing them to focus on the interests of investors, particularly prior to IPO when they must satisfy the demands of the Venture Capitalists. It’s taken new regulation to protect the interests of consumers, employees and others affected by the platform’s success.

The gig economy is good for business, it’s not so good for workers.

Right now I could order dinner to be delivered to me via Thuisbezorgd (the local incumbant), Foodora, Hungry, Deliveroo or Uber Eats. I predict that in one year’s time there will be just one platform.

Image: Lost in the Gig Economy?  | Tankesmedjan Futurion  |  BY-NC-SA 2.0 

 

Facebook Dilemma

CM2017_03_facebook.png

Scenario

Imagine you run a retail company. You find a Facebook account that is incredibly derogatory to your company. I think every company has unhappy customers but when you try to find out what caused the person to hate your company so much it turns out that the Facebook account holder is an employee. You have a policy in place to guide employees on using social media, which does state that employees should be respectful.

Options

What would you do?

Outcome

Well, this is based on a real event, at a real company. The manager of the webcare team who found this choose to contact the employee’s manager and ask them to have a discussion with their team member. The reasoning was that although the account was damaging to the company there was a bigger potential problem; a very unhappy employee.

It turned out that although the Facebook account used the person’s identity and a photo of them, they had never created the account and did not know it existed.  The webcare team then helped them contact Facebook and get the account removed.

In companies there is a temptation to look for a rule to solve anything negative. Managers often ask “what is our legal position?” or “what’s at risk?”, which leads to blame and punishment. By stepping back, thinking about what might be really happening and asking what would be lowest level of response to resolve the issue the company should a great deal of trust in their employee.

The course chosen to address the issue tried to use the “Most Respectful Interpretation” of the employees actions. The team thought that it could be a case of identity theft or that something terrible has happened at work and the employee is lashing out. The course of action chosen would lead to a swift resolution in the case of identity theft, or to the first step on resolving a serious issue if it had been the later case.

What would you have done?

Image;  Red pill/blue pill   |   tom_bullock   |   CC BY 2.0