OPINION: The Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman once said, “The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’… which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants, becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other!” Andrew Barnes explores this possibility.
Is this comment valid especially in the context of social media? Do people really have that much to say to one another? Is there a deep well of nascent verbiage advanced only by the latest techno evolution?
Social media growth is staggering. The latest figures suggest that Facebook has 1.3 billion users. Add to that 350 million LinkedIn profiles and a few hundred million for the balance of “smaller” platforms and it is easy to arrive at two billion social media profiles, give or take a few million for duplication.
Psychologists have spent time exploring the narcissistic component of social media. It is said that we have two selves: the “now self” and the “possible self” (Markus and Nurius 1987). The internet allows a person to become their “possible self” or at least a version close to it. And there is evidence that Facebook usage is associated with narcissism. Every narcissist needs a reflecting pool. Just as Narcissus gazed into the pool to admire his beauty, social networking sites have become our modern-day pool.
Putting it bluntly, the two billion social media profiles are two billion channels of ME. The writer and social commentator, Charles Hugh Smith, described this saying that with a captive global audience everyone now has the opportunity to launch their own channel. Two billion new media channels and of course… a glut of mediocre content… including selfies.
Scarcity creates value. The vast surplus of social media content easily reduces its value to zero, perhaps less. To counter this vacuum of value people seek ‘Friends’ and ‘Connections’ and try to build a robust ‘audience’ for ME. Is this truly the environment that advertisers seek? A glance through the Nielsen archives revealed some work done in late 2013 showing that media environment still impacts perceived ad credibility (as it has always done) with social media languishing at the bottom of the hierarchy.
If it is truly narcissistic and if we really don’t have that much to say to each other, it becomes easier to grasp that even behemoths such as Facebook can stop growing or even decay. The latest figures from GlobalWebIndex suggest this is happening in places:
GlobalWebIndex surveys 200 000 internet users annually. If we look at the top 10 social networks and compare Q4 2013 results against Q4 2014, Facebook is the only one that saw a decline in active user numbers.
So, what’s going on here? First, Facebook’s definition of an active user is now so broad that you can do very little on the site and still be counted within its figures. Secondly, and just as importantly, GlobalWebIndex’s data shows that, while Facebook’s active user numbers are undergoing consistent declines, its member and visitor numbers are either holding steady or increasing. Clearly, we have a large group of Facebookers who are checking the site but not actually contributing to it.
To find evidence for this, we need look no further than the US and UK (which, as Facebook’s oldest two markets, are typically seen as bellwethers for wider trends). Of the 15 000 people we surveyed in these two countries, half of Facebook’s members said they were using it less than before (rising to two thirds among teens). The main reasons for this were pretty revealing: A fifth said they were just not as interested in the site as they used to be. A similar number said they were simply bored.
Was Paul Krugman right? Probably not. People like us, it seems, do have a lot to say to each other. But we are choosing new ways of doing so.
Novelty, narcissistic fatigue, more efficient platforms? It’s difficult to say but there is rapid media evolution. Perhaps it is the simpler exchange/dialogue platforms that will drive the next growth phase. Perhaps we are not that self-interested after all.
Rapidly growing platforms include QQ in China, WhatsApp and others such as Instagram and Twitter.
What is certain is that things change quickly and despite its size and dominance the future of Facebook and other social platforms is not beyond debate.
1 Buffardi, L. E., & Campbell, W. (2008). Narcissism and social networking web sites.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1303-1314. doi:10.1177/0146167208320061
2 Mehdizadeh, S. (2010). Self-presentation 2.0: Narcissism and self-esteem on Facebook.Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 357-364. doi:10.1089/cyber.2009.0257
3 Ryan, T., & Xenos, S. (2011). Who uses Facebook? An investigation into the relationship between the Big Five, shyness, narcissism, loneliness, and Facebook usage.Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 1658-1664.
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