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Do we really live in the age of Social Networks?

March 26th, 2012 Posted by Chris View Comments

Today, I’m going to write something you’d least expect from anyone working on a system that has “social” somewhere in its description. I’m going to say that social networks are really not as big or influential as we make them to be.

They’ve been media darlings for half a decade now, and some people even go as far as saying that we live in the age of Social Media. Is it true? Let’s start our little crash course in perspective with some hard numbers. Because that’s what big apps like to throw around – numbers, numbers, and more numbers (all of them self-reported, of course).

The number crunching game

Twitter touts 175 million users. Sounds impressive?

Only until you learn that, out of those 175 million, a whopping 56 million never posted a single tweet or followed a single account. Also, 90 million accounts have zero followers. That still leaves us with 85 million users, right? Not exactly. Most of those are currently inactive. They belong to people who got bored, or just gave up after a week.

In the end, we’re left with around 50 million active profiles. The thing is, it still means “profiles” not “users”. Go to YouLikeHits, Twiends or any other places created specifically for boosting the Twitter followers count. They’re filled to the brim with automated accounts with tacked-on stock avatars and random names. Check what they post. It’s mostly spam and automated rubbish from RSS feeds. They’re here only to pad someone’s meter.

And don’t even get me started on fake personas created for marketing purposes. I’ve seen a guy who successfully ran several dozens of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, just to be used in his projects.

I don’t really know how many of those 50 million active accounts are just brand accounts or automated bots. There are estimates that there are really only 20 million active human users on Twitter. If you’d exile every Twitter user in the world somewhere far, far away, they’d create a country the size of Madagascar.

Now let’s get some perspective.

That’s 1% of the Internet population, or a paltry 0.25% of the global population. Yes, if you’d grab a random sample of 100 people that crawl the web, only one would tweet or read tweets. According to http://www.worldometers.info/, a great site if you’re the sort of guy who wants to know how many bicycles are produced each year, currently we have approximately 2,300,0000,000 Internet users. That’s two billion, almost a quarter of earth’s population. Out of those 2300 million, only around 20 million use Twitter.

Of course, Facebook is way bigger. Recently, it was boasting 425 million daily active users, and almost twice that monthly. Sounds impressive, but only until you see what it actually takes to be an active user in Facebook’s eyes. Those are not only people who visited their page, clicked around or wrote some updates. Facebook also counts everyone who clicked any of the “Like” buttons scattered all over the web, or anyone who wrote a comment on any site that has a comments section run by a Facebook plugin.

Even if you abandoned your Facebook account many years ago and your last update was about the 2009 Superbowl, you might still be an active Facebook user, simply because you comment on Mashable.

Let’s also remember that at least 50 million accounts are fake, created for boosting friend numbers or for playing games. Even though Facebook tries hard to fight this, many people hold duplicate profiles, to separate their private lives from their professional issues.

Suddenly, Facebook user base is not that overwhelming anymore…

And G+? It was supposed to be a success story. The launch was booming, the user base sky-rocketed. So far it grew to 54 million. Except, registered users hardly spend any time at all there. With an average visits of just under 3 minutes per month, G+ is scraping the bare bottom of the user activity barrel. Three minutes a month is less than most people spend picking their noses. A truly appalling result for a place that’s supposed to be fun.

As you can see, really active users of social networks are not as numerous as we think. If you live on a campus somewhere in US, it might seem that just about everyone is available on Facebook. In fact, it’s further from the truth than you imagine. Majority of Internet users never got into this “social thing”, or got bored already, and even if they didn’t, in many countries they are using local platforms. You might think that Twitter is the center of the digital world, but your Brazilian friend thinks the same about Orkut, and your Russian buddy is having a severe case of Vkontakte deprivation while on holidays.

How important are Social Media?

Raw numbers are not everything. Sometimes, it only takes a small group of people with big ideology to shape culture, politics or history. For example: the motion picture and television industry in America employs under 2.5 million people, yet this group has a profound impact on popular culture all over the globe.

But then again, social networks – unlike Hollywood – do not create any new content. They just make it easier to stay in touch or to see what content is relevant to your friends. Is it important? Sure! But before them, we were able to accomplish all of this by different means. You see, even before Twitter, people knew pretty much everything about famous musicians and celebrities just by reading press and watching interviews. Twitter didn’t really improve the quality of information, it only allowed it to multiply faster. It allowed us to access it almost instantly, from anywhere on earth. It grouped it into bite-sized 140 character chunks. Oh, and professional networking worked just fine even before LinkedIn.

But what about the political importance? We all heard about how social media helped the recent middle-east revolutions, right?

Not exactly. Today, more and more journalists agree it was a bit blown out of proportion. Twitter fueling Arab rebellions was just too attractive a topic for any tech journalist to pass up. Unfortunately, the raw data says that the combined number Twitter users in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia is less than 15.000. Facebook is more popular – 13.5% of Egypt’s population has a Facebook account. Considering everything I wrote so far, I guess less than a half of them might be actual active users. Not bad, but still a drop in the bucket.

Social networks mostly helped people in the west to get a glimpse of what was happening in real time, without leaving their chairs. But they did not contribute so much to spreading social unrest as we’d like to think. Yes, FB was frequently used as a communication tool, but there was also a host of other communication tools involved, from home-printed brochures and posters to mobile phones, good old fashioned e-mail and the all-powerful word of mouth. Similarly, during the SOPA / ACTA debate in EU and US, popular image boards with funny pictures and smart parodies did at least as much as Facebook, if not more. And I’m not even mentioning the old fashioned press.

If we take a look back at our common history, a clear pattern emerges. Every couple of decades a big wave of political change sweeps through each country. America had its late 60’s, eastern European block had its 1989, and let’s not forget that Iran we know today was born out of social revolt of 1979. And guess what, all of those revolutions didn’t have a benefit of social networks. Hippies didn’t tweet. During French revolution not a single Facebook update was posted.

That’s why the middle-east revolutions would have taken place anyway, without social media or Internet – simply because the time was right, and people were pissed off.

An age? Or more like a minute?

To sum up: 2,3 billion people browse the web. Only around 10-20% of those frequently use any sort of social network. Even in US, the birthplace of social networking, people spend just 23% of their time online on this sort of activity. What’s with the other 80%? Well, it seems we’re still good with old fashioned browsing, watching vids, chats, e-mails, forums, image boards, games, and various web apps.

And now let me give you the final two pieces of the puzzle. Recent data seems to show that the growth of popular social platforms is slowing down. Not everyone realizes it yet, but it’s entirely possible that the popularity of social media will peak this year, going into slow but steady decline as soon as 2013.

If you think of the Web as a city then Twitter is just a big trendy club, and FB is a busy downtown mall. And here’s where I have an advice for everyone who tries to make a living out of the Web. Even though people on social networks are very easy to reach, there’s a whole huge world outside of Facebook walls waiting to hear about what you do.

So get out of the club and hit the streets, before someone else does.

That’s what we plan to do, by the way. Yes, we’re active on all major social platforms, we have a popular Facebook fan page and a sizable Twitter community. But we also think hard about how to reach out to all the people that are looking for something new to do in the Web; to people who were not quite gripped by the interaction that happens in the Social Networks and would like to try something different.

If there’s one thing that never goes out of our minds it’s how to  reach out to those 80-90% of Web users.

Posted in Collective Intelligence, Content Discovery, Internet Trends, Social Browsing, Uncategorized |

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