Thoughts on advertising in a post-social media world.
We live in an era of changing media.
Is social media a fad?
Advertisers should be thinking about a post-social media world.
In my conversations with businesses across America there’s a topic of conversation that routinely comes up. How best to connect people with the products they need?
Where should we advertise to consumers in a landscape where cord cutting is becoming more and more dominant? Before the restrict act was bandied about in Congress The answer was easy: TikTok.
I look back on some of those conversations with a little amusement. Gen-X and Millennial people politely talking to each other with the assurance that social media is here to stay. These conversations predated the current shake up at Twitter, and predated NPRs announcement that it was leaving Twitter along with other journalists and celebrities.
Twitter: A Small and Shrinking Crowd
This was true before Musk’s takeover. Less than 5% of Twitter users contributed the lion’s share of its content. And it’s certainly even more true now.
These days Twitter does not seem like a rich and spicy soup it used to. If anything, it seems like a dying mall. A place to go and get a new hat. pair of jeans or a designer t-shirt from one of the ubiquitous designer T-shirt shops which seem to populate dying malls. Not a place to inform, entertain, and educate yourself.
It’s a little amusing to me these days to think back on the assurance we all had. We just knew that social media was here to stay and that that’s where advertising dollars would doubtlessly go.
Then Elon Musk bought Twitter. Okay there was a narrative put forward by the makers of other apps that Twitter was dying. I would even read tweets from people claiming that their Twitter momentarily broke, or that their direct messages somehow weren’t private or weren’t accessible or something. People couldn’t log on to Twitter. I was largely spared this experience until today.
Even after Elon Musk bought Twitter, something that I’m on record as saying that I didn’t think he would do, most people including me probably thought–if they thought about Twitter at all–that for the average user the experience would largely stay the same. Once the journalists start leaving, once you can’t verify anything as easily because verification is only $8, once the media starts leaving, once people given to arguing online start arguing with the wrong people, things start breaking even if the infrastructure is intact. Which it wasn’t.
Social Media Restructuring Into Something Less Mainstream
Still there was always this question among these Gen-X and Millennial people: Where are people going to go? The answer much The same as in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal seemed to be TikTok. Mastodon had started making a name for itself for academic Twitter. Though it has increased in users that increase seems to have level off. Post.news seems to be positioning itself as the journalist replacement for Twitter. Though how many people go there to read journalists is yet to be determined. Much the same way as Mastodon. My brief foray on Mastodon led me to conclude that it was much too clunky, I couldn’t self-promote my podcast, and because there was no algorithm there would be this endless scroll to try and find interesting posts or articles or whatever. Also the user base as of this writing is small enough that the site can just feel empty.
Still the nagging questions continue. The $8 blue check causes advertisers to wonder if they should be on Twitter at all. Various firms have release statements saying that because of the possibility or actual impersonation incident they are going to get off Twitter. Further starving the platform of money.
Advertisers on the Sidelines
Advertisers are quietly waiting with their arms crossed. Waiting to see what plays out in the social media space. After all, Congress might very well cut off American access to TikTok. Despite many experts in the IT field legitimately questioning how such a thing could even be possible. Especially if the rest of the world doesn’t follow suit.
Then last night the podcast Hard Fork I heard one of the hosts say what I’m sure many in the advertising world and many other people have been saying quietly, out loud. He postulated that social media could just go away. It could take the form of you texting your real friends and there would be this diffuse network of DMs and posting on niche sites like Reddit or Discord. But that much of your actual communication with your actual friends, even your cyber friends would happen in much in a more diffuse manner. Effectively he was arguing that there would no longer be this common watering hole floating around in cyberspace.
Many people who are younger than say 30 might see that as strange. After all, they’ve never known a world where social media didn’t exist. We were too busy riding the dopamine train to ask really hard questions. Questions like where is my data going? Is this really an account run by the person who says is running the account? This is one of the reasons that verification of the blue check mark was so important once upon a time. There were always these curmudgeons in the background wondering allowed if this was hurting people’s attention span. I vividly remember one social thinker wondering what the impact of having kids constantly having access to their friends would have on their development. I’m unaware if he was aware of the effect that social media was already having on young girls at the time he said that.
But for Millennials and the younger Gen-X crowd it was largely taken as a given that social media was here to stay.
Increasingly with the specter of the Restrict Act as well as people fleeing Facebook and Instagram as well as what Elon Musk is doing to Twitter I have wondered if that’s actually true. Is social media in fact a permanent new fact of life? Or is it merely a passing fad?
Connection happens through DM. (Self) advertising happens on the feed. What if fears of data collection are outweighing the need for self advertising? Social media’s anxiety machine may be fueling its own end.
Social Media Outliving Utility
Facebook existed before the smartphone. People could DM each other on Facebook before they could text. Many people would use Facebook as sort of a closed-circuit email situation with their friends. We should drill down on what friends are in this context, because I think it matters. Prior to approximately 2009 or 2008 you’re actually talking about people who actively knew the people they were Facebook friends with. You had to know the people to become their Facebook friend. There was even a quiz that you had to take to become their Facebook friend. You also had to have academic email.
It’s easy enough to see on a long enough timeline that the academic email requirement was going to go away. Facebook was always going to be a for-profit business and that meant expanding its reach as far as possible. The departure of the quiz, a layer of security through which you could screen people who don’t know you well enough to actually be your friend, was a big mistake I think.
Overnight, Facebook went from a place where cliques of friends could have good-natured discussions to basically snooping. One of the lasting impact of Facebook is that it changed the word stalking. You could cyberstalk people. You could read the things that people posted with the intention that only their friends would see it. And this was being done to young people. People with a much diminished sense of privacy.
Facebook was also coming into its own during the Great Recession. I don’t think you can discount that. I don’t think you can discount at all that Facebook was becoming a thing precisely during the time in America when there were mass layoffs, and the bottom was falling out of the housing market. This forced young people to socialize online. I think had this not happened during the Great Recession America’s relationship to social media would be vastly different.
Twitter also came about before smartphones. It was actually one of the first messaging apps arguably. I remember when I first got on Twitter approximately 5 years ago you still had this cohort of people that were using it as a messaging app sort of similar to how you would use Signal or Facebook Messenger today. Twitter was also a way to promote independent things. However, it was always a small social media app relative to Facebook or Instagram. And an even smaller number of users actually regularly used it. Jack Dorsey the creator of Twitter and the one-time CEO has even said that had Donald Trump not been president Twitter likely would have gone bankrupt.
The sale of Twitter to Elon Musk is remarkable because a lot of the facts behind it happened basically in public and they happened very fast. I vividly remember at the time there were people who went on the record saying that he bought Twitter to destroy it. I don’t know if that’s honestly the case. What I do know is that his conduct and management of Twitter since he has bought it has caused a lot of metaphorical sacred cows to be sacrificed.
A Post-Twitter Replacement
Journalists, celebrities, and interesting people are leaving Twitter. The $8 Blue Check is breaking a fundamental security feature within Twitter. This under-minds a very important safety feature of Twitter. The Twitter Blue check was a very important security feature which became a status symbol in the minds of some people.
First, I should define what a Twitter replacement could be–the shape it could take–textual first and foremost. Twitter is accessible because it’s the written word. It’s not sound primarily as Clubhouse was, though it has videos, videos are not the main feature. It’s the inner workings and private thoughts made public that make it worth going to. Any app seeking to capture that Twitter magic needs to understand that’s what Twitter is.
Twitter is famous as a place where activists gather. So you have apps today that are seeking to emulate the Twitter audience through actively gathering activists. But this misses the mark. Jack Dorsey used to love to tell anybody who would listen The Twitter was a news service. I could tell that was marketing. That too is a mistake, however genius the marketing ploy might be. People might come to Twitter for the news. But they stayed on Twitter for the conversation.
What If The Twitter Replacement is Nothing?
There’s also the dynamic that these Twitter replacements are either ignoring or hoping you will ignore. The social media adoption dynamic has always gone like this: young people get on it because it’s cool. Young people’s parents get on it either because they’re told it’s cool or because they want to keep up with their kids’ exploits in cyberspace. Making a social media app for adults is almost guaranteed to fail. The reason TikTok caught fire might have been because parents wanted to keep up with what their kids were doing on TikTok. But those parents stayed because of the humor or the information or just scenes of the bizarre or humdrum daily life in the world.
I myself got on TikTok partly because of an ad during the super bowl. In my time on TikTok I’ve seen not the scary or terrible challenges that you hear about in the media but I’ve seen stunt food, people saying hilarious things through their pets, a man working in the trades in southern Arkansas who is absolutely hilarious, a young man who impersonates classical composers while dancing in, to put it mildly, the modern style to classical music. Several people who are out there tirelessly educating people on American History and government. An IT man in New York who would have made an excellent professor had the American academy not been in its death throws, to name just a few. Will those people find new platforms if TikTok goes away? If social media is not a fad, I would say yes. But we will simply have to see if this thing that has been around since at least the late ’90s is in fact a generational fad.
In conclusion I begun to wonder even since I started writing this if social media is in fact a fad. In the beginning, there were Yahoo groups. Yahoo groups were arguably merely a natural outgrowth of email. It was a way for people to stay on topic around an event or a subject. Facebook was famously started as a way for Mark Zuckerberg to rank the young lady’s attractiveness in his dormitory at Harvard. It gradually morphed into a communication tool. For a time it was a news delivery service, though it never wanted to do that. Possibly for legal reasons.
The post 2016 world has seen large chunks of the blogosphere collapse. In each case there are different reasons. But the fact is that independent media is either becoming corporatized or it is collapsing altogether. It’s not a mainstream thought to think of a blog as though it were social media, but it kind of is. For every Politico or Drudge Report there are literally tens of thousands of so-called mommy blogs, or people who blog about their favorite sport, or just randomly blog about thoughts. It’s wrong to say that blogging is dying. It’s not dying. But it’s dying as the it business of the moment.
Social media is at a similar inflection point. What was once thought of as a way for friends to either continue or maintain their relationship has curdled in the minds of many Americans. For all the talk of Will Mastodon replace Twitter and what will replace TikTok should TikTok actually be banned, I think the wider and more important question should be is social media merely a fad? As I said earlier social media came of age with a younger set of people who couldn’t go out as much because of the Great Recession. A lot of those people continued on with Twitter and Facebook even after Cambridge Analytica. But many more did not or do not use it for the same thing.
I think the advertising world shouldn’t ask what the next Twitter replacement will be or what the next TikTok replacement will be. I think the advertising world should ask is social media being replaced? Where can ads be put on the digital space? Google still captures 90 plus percent of internet traffic. Steam has made video games much cheaper and much more accessible. In-game ads would not appeal to the American gamer. I’ll never claim that they would. But I do wonder if more ad presence Steam would be a good thing? If you had to get through an ad before you downloaded a new game, would you wait for that? People do all the time for YouTube ads. Is that not the same thing?
Whatever happens with the advertising market as far as where it goes I don’t think advertisers and advertising agencies can afford to assume that people will continue to go to social media no matter how social media evolves. I think much more reliance on search as as well as video ads for TikTok or TikTok adjacent products or replacement apps should really be thought about.