Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is Social Media a Fad or a Trend?

The latest buzz in the tech bubble world is that Social Media is the next big thing.  But is it?  Or just a fad?

Social Media is getting a lot of Media these days.  Everyone is waiting with baited breath for Facebook to go public, so we can all bid up the shares into the stratosphere.  And some folks are already investing, through special investment vehicles.  If the LinkedIn IPO is any indication, they will make a lot of money.  But my suggestion to Mr. Zuckerstein is to do it quickly, before the buzz wears off.  Because all tech bubbles burst, when people finally figure out that the Internet is just the Internet, and no one can "own" it - despite numerous attempts to do so.

And there are a lot of ambitious attempts to come up with different types of Social Media, and not all are successful.  Blippy, a site which inexplicably allows you to post all your credit card purchases online, seems to be fading fast.  It turns out, no one really cares a rat's ass what their friends bought at the mall the other day.

And of course, the decline in usage of credit cards may be to blame.  Using a credit card these days is tantamount to admitting that you are clueless, financially.  And gushing about your latest "purchase" as if it were some sort of personal conquest, is being exposed for the stupidity that it is.  It takes no talent to buy things.  It's not like you MADE that $50 Abercombie and Fitch T-shirt or that iPhone you like to show off.  Selecting consumer items and then borrowing money top buy them not only takes no talent, but actually less than talent - it takes a level of stupidity.

So, maybe bragging about going into debt with credit cards was an aspect of Social Media that backfired.  But it also illustrates one problem with Social Media - the "who gives a rat's ass?" (WGARA) effect.  Think about this for a second.  You go on Facebook and read about how your best friend from High School "likes" a chain restaurant and just made toll house cookies to eat while watch "Dancing with the Stars."

How does that data enhance your life?  Like Genealogical data, is just random noise masking as true signal.  Genealogists claim there is great deeper meaning in finding out the names and birth dates and death dates of ancient ancestors.  But as I have illustrated before, you can come up with similarly relevant data just by making up names and downloading clip-art of old-timey photographs from the Internet.  How relevant is it that my Great-Great-Grandfather was named Platt Wiggins and was born on September 8, 1878?  I could just as easily say his name was Elmer Fudd and he was born on July 4, 1867.  It makes no difference.  A faded tintype, a birth date, a death date.  No relevant data.  And the idea that somehow even if he were "famous" it really doesn't affect my life, unless his name was Rockefeller or something.

Noise masquerading itself as data.  It looks like data, because there is a uniform way of harvesting it.  And in Facebook, the same is true.

You use these links to Friends and friends-of-friends to make connections, but for the most part, many of these "friends" are barely acquaintances.  And their likes and dislikes of commercial enterprises are not really relevant to your daily life.  And what they did last Thursday isn't very interesting, if you think about it.  After all, you can't remember what you did last Thursday, can you?

I have a "friend" on Facebook who travels a lot.  He snaps pictures with his smartphone and puts them on Facebook with cryptic comments.  Here he is boarding a plane in France.  Here he is having sushi in Tokyo.  Here he is, getting on another airplane.  After a while, it gets repetitive.  And since he travels all the time, it really isn't very novel.  It is not like he is taking that "once in a lifetime trip" but rather his regular monthly milk run.

Other people do similar things - uploading lots of data of the "who gives a crap?" variety.  And I have to admit, I used to do it, too.  We all like to upload things, thinking all of our friends will be impressed or even interested in what we are doing with our lives.  But like the daily Farmville updates, we rarely are.

Does this mean social media is dead?  Hardly.  It existed long before Facebook, and even MySpace and even Friendster.  We all put up photos on sites or log onto favorite discussion groups or blogs or whatever, and did so before Facebook, and will do so after.  Facebook merely provided an easy-to-use format for people who were not very computer literate (a surprising number, even today) and eliminated all that messy "content" stuff in favor of the social side - which is what a lot of people wanted.

Facebook's latest efforts are to expand the franchise by making Facebook into an Internet Portal.  And It think this could backfire in a big way.  Facebook has a primitive "messaging" system, to be sure.  But it is hardly an e-mail address.  And for many people, using Facebook as a means of communication is problematic.  You may want to send messages to people, and you may want to give people access to your "profile".  But you may not want to do both.  Morphing Facebook into a portal for Internet Access will be difficult, to say the least.

The filtering aspect of both Facebook and Google is also troubling.  Facebook allows you to close-in around your circle of friends, such that your ideas are constantly validated and not challenged.  Not only will you disregard contrary evidence, it will not be presented to you.  And this is a major problem for people, as getting all your information from one source is often a great source of distress to individuals.  Ask the people who worked at Enron - who invested all their 401(k) in Enron stock.   Ask the followers of Glenn Beck and his Gold fantasies - in about a year or so.  Ask the end-times theologists how their weekend went on May 21st.

Trying to narrow or focus or control information is problematic, as people have an appetite for unfettered access.  AOL failed, in part, because it tried to control the Internet by providing exclusive content and search features (AOL Keyword: Fail).  Once AOL users realized they were playing in the wading pool, while everyone else could swim in the ocean, well, they wanted out.

Will Facebook go public?  I think so, but they should do it sooner than later.  By this time next year, we may be wondering what all the hype was about.  The secret to success in Internet website-based businesses is to cash out early and make money while you can, rather than doubling-down your bet and trying to win it all.