Are Twitter and Facebook Flaming Out?
A thought-provoking essay appeared today online, “Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It),” authored by Umair Haque. I urge everyone to read it. If accurate (and I believe it is), the future doesn’t portend very well for traditional social media outlets, particularly the two most popular platforms in the United States — Twitter and Facebook.
In his essay, Haque describes Twitter as what was once the embodiment of a Utopian promise, that an instantly-accessible open global town square would become the centrifuge for creative thoughts and new ideas which could be freely expressed, without censorship nor commercial viability. Posts could be compressed into a single, easily-digestible cliffnote of just 140 characters, be blasted out, and then receive instant feedback. Presumably, one’s own devoted army of followers serve both as a sounding board and a filter to the vast greater universe beyond. Post something truly profound, and it just might get re-tweeted into the thousands.
For a while, it all seemed to work. Unfortunately however, Twitter (and Facebook which has its own demons growling in the dungeon) continue a steady decomposition into a pointless clusterfuck of blowhards spouting half-truths, punctuated with mostly worthless scrapbooks filled with narcissistic pretension, all with the collective shelf life of a soap bubble (those are my words, by the way — Hague writes more scholarly and with less vitriol than I do). This is what the author classifies as “abuse.” Hague goes on to call Twitter “a deserted bar (where) people seem to be leaving early, too hastily, unsatisfied, rolling their eyes.”
I’ve never been much of a fan of Twitter, and was reluctant to join some five years ago. My resistance slowly withered down like a boulder buttressing against a tidal waterfall, to the point where the helpless rock simply gives up and gets washed away along with the flood. This transformation to Twitter user was mostly out of professional necessity. Admittedly, instances of boredom-killing, rubbernecking curiosity also factored into my justification for logging in daily, and now I just wish I could get all those lost wasted hours back. Sure, Twitter’s great when it comes to finding the occasional hidden gemstone, so long one doesn’t mind sifting through tons of rock and dust. Twitter’s also something to appreciate for the immediate access it allows us to important personalities, even though a great many of the tweets posted by celebrities are assembly-lined and rubber-stamped by manipulative marketeers and public relations flunkies. In other words, there’s a lot of bullshit floating around out there.
It’s no surprise then that Twitter is no longer expanding. Actually, that’s an understatement. Fact is, Twitter’s popularity is declining. Consider the following article written by Jim Edwards from Business Insider, “The Number of people using Twitter may actually be in decline .” Allegedly, there were 288 million accounts at Twitter’s plateau, which was about a year ago. Although no concrete data exists, only about half of those accounts are estimated to be active, meaning they have real people reading and posting from them on a regular basis. The actual number of Twitter users is estimated at closer to 129 million, down from a high point some 14 months ago when users numbered about 145 million. I can personally testify to this ratio by the way: I have one account for myself, and another for my cat. So far, after two years, my cat hasn’t checked his Twitter feed even once. For the math challenged, that represents a decline of about 12 percent annually. Not a good outlook for Twitter, unless cats start going online by the millions.
Facebook is experiencing a similar rate of decline. Forbes recently reported Facebook’s losses in terms of usage at about 9 percent, just within the past year. Read “Facebook Was the One Network People Used Less in 2014,” penned by Parmy Olson. What this means is — if the typical user was spending 100 minutes on Facebook per month a year ago, that same average user is now spending just 91 minutes monthly. Of course, in this rapidly changing and expanding high-tech universe, competing social networks have sprouted up in the void and continue growing, some by substantial margins. Tumblr and Pinterest are two sites in particular which have jumped in popularity. So has Twitch by the way, with its growth almost entirely fueled by electronic gamers. Moreover, social platforms that were once global are increasingly being fracked apart. As Twitter and Facebook decline globally, regional social networks in Asia are exploding.
There are a number of valid reasons as to why the future of Twitter and Facebook might about as promising as exploding twin volcanoes. First, there’s simple demographic shifts, which are unavoidable. Younger people tend to like new things. They seek out changes and social platforms with unusual features. They’re more prone to experimentation. Such preferences and habits are in stark contrast to more mature users, who seek out comfort zones where they feel safe and secure. Older people engaged on social platforms aren’t much interested in visiting a new “town square” where they’ve never been before. They tend to prefer the predictable, and converse with people they already know.
Might Twitter and Facebook be headed ultimately for the sorry fate of America Online (AOL)? Perhaps so. Twenty years ago, when everyone began going online, AOL was the nation’s largest Internet Service Provider (ISP). Now, it’s a dinosaur. Having an AOL account is technologically akin to driving a 1994 Mercury Grand Marquis with those ugly seat covers made out of beads.
But generational shifts aren’t nearly enough to explain such a rapid decline of active engagement. It goes deeper than that, and frankly is far more nefarious. Getting back to Umair Hague’s original article, his theory on reasons as to why Twitter is failing bears our contemplation. He writes:
“….I’m going to suggest in this short essay that abuse — not making money — is the great problem tech and media have. The problem of abuse is the greatest challenge the web faces today. It is greater than censorship, regulation, or (ugh) monetization. It is a problem of staggering magnitude and epic scale, and worse still, it is expensive: it is a problem that can’t be fixed with the cheap, simple fixes beloved by tech: patching up code, pushing out updates.
To explain, let me be clear what I mean by abuse. I don’t just mean the obvious: violent threats. I also mean the endless bickering, the predictable snark, the general atmosphere of little violences that permeate the social web…and the fact that the average person can’t do anything about it.”
I think Hague is onto something big here. Something profound, but also very ugly. Allow me to elaborate.
People who tap on their smart phones and go online are mostly looking for entertainment and amusement, and occasionally blurbs of information. That type of engagement shall continue. But when it comes to direct interaction on social networks with others, one-by-one we’re tuning in, turning on, and then dropping out — to use the old 1960’s axiom of Dr. Timothy Leary. We’re becoming fatigued by ceaseless bombardments on Facebook of worthless garbage, personal attacks, vile pronouncements, and an illogical freak show where everyone with access to a keyboard seems to believe that all thoughts and ideas are equal and truth requires absolutely no empirical evidence. He or she who screams the loudest and most often — wins. The rest of us — well, we lose.
The cottage industry of lies that’s popped up like a weed garden on what might otherwise be a productive farm of ideas include countless bogus “independent news sites,” almost entirely partisan which pretty much make up news and blast out outlandish headlines lacking any substantiated truth. This distortion of reality’s major pipelines of traffic are Facebook and Twitter. Without the thousands of re-posts generated by these echo chambers of the alternate universe, these pirates of truth quite simply would not exist. Moreover, the depths of divisiveness would be nowhere as strongly rooted as where they are now, much to the chagrin of a working democracy which requires respectful debate and willingness to compromise. It’s not just truth, it’s democracy that’s losing here, folks.
Sadly, as Twitter and Facebook decline in overall usage, other competing platforms are bound to continue springing up. Before too long, we’ll have much narrower social platforms segregated by region, by subject, by philosophy, by age, and by who knows what else. In other words, we may be destined to become increasingly even more divided, in spite of social media’s once great promise that interactive technology and direct engagement would help to bring us all together. Hell, we’re already segregated by age, by race, by sex, by interest, by region, by the type of music we listen to, by the candidates we support. Why not just go The Full Monty and insist that our social networks reflect these divisions, rather than accentuating the bridges of common interest?
Oh, the irony.
Instead, it’s tearing us apart. One snarky post as a time. One half-wit meme at a time. One bitter argument at a time. In the end, we all lose. We all become victims to a worsened state of isolation that online social platforms were once supposed to cure.
That’s why Twitter and Facebook are in decline.