On the maturation of social media

In this recent article, Newsweek claims that traditional social media like blogs and upcoming ones like twitter are on the decline because we as a people are simply too lazy and wouldn’t do something for free [hat tip: Patrix]. Newsweek has really embarrassed itself with this post. Let me explain how.

First, let us examine the evidence that Newsweek provides for the decline in social media.

  1. Wikimedia, after its prolific crowdsourced contribution to wikipedia until 2009 is now having to recruit contributors and editors.
  2. According to Technorati, professional bloggers are on the rise whereas hobbyist loggers (like your truly) are on the decline. 95% of the blogs are abandoned in the first month. A recent Pew study found that blogging has withered as a pastime, with the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who identify themselves as bloggers declining by half between 2006 and 2009.
  3. Although twitter is adding users at an astounding rate, 90% of tweets come from 10 percent of users, according to a 2009 Harvard study. Between 60 and 70 percent of people signing up for twitter quit within a month, according to a recent Nielsen report.
  4. While Digg won readers, it struggled to sign up voters and has forced a change in format to something similar to social networking sites like facebook.

Based on this evidence, the article concludes that (a) traditional social media and citizen journalism is on the decline (the only kind of social media that is rising is the one that allows people to connect with each other), and (b) the underlying reason for it is that people are lazy to do anything for free. Do you seen the disconnect in logic and reasoning here?

Novelty Factor

First, the author of the article chooses to completely ignore the ‘novelty’ factor that we are all subject to. Remember Beanie babies? How about the slinky? They were wildly popular when they first came out, but not any more. Is that because people got too lazy to play with them? Of course not! It’s the novelty factor. When people see something new, it will pique their interest and exploring it is a reward unto itself. So people tend to use it to understand it. Once the novelty factor wears out, only the hardcore fans and professionals occupy the niche. It explains everything from the slinky and beanie babies to blogs and twitter. I am surprised that the article did not make that connection.

Knowledge Generation and Gatekeepers

Second, how is wikimedia’s recruiting professionals a bad thing, even for social media? Knowledge validity is not subject to democracy. Evolution does not become untrue simply because a majority of our population choose to be Bible thumpers. If wikimedia intends to be taken seriously as a repository of human knowledge, it needs gatekeepers and knowledge generation agents who are proficient in their respective areas and disciplines. This ensures that crowdsourced information and knowledge is validated before it pollutes the repository.

Blogging Bubble

Third, the article seems to assume that everyone who started a blog started it with the intention of generating information to be shared with everyone. This is simply not true (see my earlier point about the novelty factor). In fact, I will hazard to assert that a vast majority of the people who blog do not do it to generate more information for the benefit of others. I will go on to claim that it is blogs like these that tend to be abandoned. Therefore, no harm no foul there. Its not too different from an economic bubble really. Much like the housing bubble gave people and unrealistic estimate of the value of real estate, the ‘blogging  bubble’ (the phenomenon of everyone on the street having a blog of their own) gave people an inflated idea of the amount of information being generated by the blogsphere. When the blogging bubble is now burst, and the `decline’ or `stagnation’ we see now is the intrinsic value of the information generated by the blogsphere all along.

Not everyone wants to generate, aggregate, and share information. That is perfectly fine. If you have everyone generating information, who is there to consume, process, and utilize them?

Social Cliques

Fourth, when it comes to platforms like Digg, they started with the premise that if a lot of people “dig” something, then the odds are that a lot more people will be interested in the information that has been “dug”. As it turns out, the premise is not entirely accurate. People are members of relative small cliques, and the value of the same piece of information varies  from one clique to another. Digg recognized this and has taken steps to reorganize the site to align with this empirical observation. That does not mean that social media is on a decline. It simply means that we are using social media differently.

Motivation for Congnitive Tasks

The article also talks about putting rewards in place to encourage participation in sites like Gawker and Huffington Post and then makes a snide remark about the next step being offering money. Obviously Newsweek is ignorant to Dan Pink’s presentation on what motivates people. The bottom line is that money is not a motivator for cognitive tasks. (in fact, it could be a de-motivator) Most of traditional social media is about performing cognitive tasks to generate and collate information.

As a counter example, consider Linux, an open-source operating system. It has thousands of contributors who work for free to create a product and then give that product away for free! It’s not too different from many bloggers who blog for free and allow viewing the blog for free. It’s not too different from wikimedia contributors adding and editing articles. Linux and the open-source movement is as strong as ever. So why should blogs and wikimedia be any different?

Then what about the data and statistics that the article presented? Well, that simply says that a whole bunch of people jumped on the bandwagon for all the wrong reasons and now they getting off the bandwagon. But there are still a sufficient number of individuals left to carry on the movement.

So yeah, the blogsphere is maturing, wikimedia is maturing, not dying. All that means is that now on, the only people who are going to get on to traditional social media are the ones who see an intrinsic value in the participation, and I am pretty confident that there will be plenty of people. Think Linux, think open source. This is no different.

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