We have been saying for some time that there is something fundamentally wrong with social media. For one thing (and even given the current success of advertising) platforms such as Facebook have a business model based to an extraordinary extent on that advertising going well.
Now as we get to the stage of 2018 when we stop saying ‘Happy New Year’ and just say ‘good morning’, realities begin to sink in.
Apart from the fear, remorse and regret of wishing we hadn’t posted that picture of the party several hours after midnight, there is a new, greater remorse emerging.
A Professor at the University College London has said in a major daily newspaper that he believes that there will be backlash against platforms such as Facebook this year. He believes that the abuse of data (and lack of education about what to post and what not to post), the fake news, the extremist content and a host of other issues will become enough to push people off the platform, or simply stop using it.
And even some of the early evangelists are being remorseful.
Chamath Palihapitiya, the gentleman at Facebook who was in charge of user growth in its most critical growth stage, is deeply remorseful. According to him,”we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” That is not good. Not good at all.
Palihapitiya goes further to say that “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth.”
Another thing is, of course, that governments are getting very serious indeed about these platforms managing their content better, and some are threatening hefty tax bills as just one punishment for hosting extremist content.
And if you thought that these high tech companies are going to rely on their leading edge technology to take us safely to the future, think again. Facebook now has a team of almost 20,000 human beings whose job it is to filter content. Their AI technology is simply not good enough.
And the social media companies – among other high, high tech companies – are now innovating for the sake of innovation. Losing attention from a segment of society? Try serializing video stories, publish them a ‘chapter’ at a time. Try, well, anything (as long as it is video based).
This, by the way, is Facebook copying the way Charles Dickens used to publish his books – in episodes. Nowadays, sadly, our attention span is such that each episode is less than two minutes. We are simply too busy, our attention too scattered.
Whether or not Facebook is on the brink of a precipice, time will tell. Whether it can come up with interesting – possibly even useful – applications, and begin to rely less and less on advertising, again time will tell. Whether or not Facebook, Google, Twitter et al can win the war against extremist content (and it will be a costly one), the fact is that now governments are involved.
Governments cannot allow companies to become too big, and they have tax, penalties and regulation at their disposal if those companies appear to be doing so.
Predictions may be dangerous, particularly ones that dare suggest that Goliaths will fall. It does, however, seem a safe assumption to say that Facebook and others will be in a very different place this time next year.