Why Social Networks Make Life Complicated

The social Web is becoming fractured by social-networking corporations (SoNetCorps). In a search for increased per capita revenue from a plateauing user base, companies are now dividing the social Web into fiefdoms of “FaceyVille,” “Googlandaivia,” “Twitstonia,” “Linkindia,” and so on.

Initially SoNetCorps allowed interaction between competing services and built that into their systems. It was in their best interest when they were small and growing because people would follow the links back to the originating site. A link from a cross post via Google+ to Twitter or Facebook, or one from Twitter to LinkedIn or Google+, could draw more users to both sites, as people with an account on one service could easily create an account on another, then post in one and have it domino.

Maze GameIntermediate users with multiple SoNet accounts grew to love these features and learned to rely on them. Being able to make one post that is sent to all of your friends, circles and followers no matter what their SoNet of choice is a huge time saver. Many people now assume the party invite they blasted out to their social networks got to everyone, and neglect the old fashioned e-mail or phone call. I myself often don’t hear about parties or gatherings until the last minute because everyone seems to assume that since I’m highly advanced Internet user, I’m on all services and check them regularly.

Now the largest players want to keep their users on their site or in their app as long as possible so they can collect advertising revenue and gain that all-important vapor value, mind share. Greater mind share means that the next time a person wants to check what’s going on with their friends, they’ll go first to the SoNet they think of first.

In Praise of Single Access

But some developers, wanting to make a one-stop app so a person can have a single source, understand that it’s far more convenient to build apps that link to each SoNet’s APIs. Some apps are supported by ads, which might run afoul of the social network’s terms and conditions. Or the apps might filter the embedded SoNet service’s ads, and so become more expensive so the developers can pay the filtering premium. Despite the profit potential of building an app on a major SoNet platform, all third parties developing for an ad-based or “free” SoNet have their business livelihoods precariously balanced between users willing to pay for their added value and the financial interests of the SoNetCorp.

Developers have a difficult time making third-party apps when large companies change their API and terms of service. Worse is when a value-added service on top of the SoNet is so successful that the SoNet decides it’s exactly what it should build into its own service.

Of course, some API changes are for the better, as when new user-centric features are rolled out. But aside from those apps running afoul of legitimate terms of service concerns, these API and ToS changes aren’t user-centric and usually restrict access to content created by users, which the company owns the rights to distribute. Any change, good or bad, is unveiled as an “improvement to service.” However some “improvements” are for the company alone, such as when they block the ability to post in one place and have it delivered to multiple SoNets. Users can no longer automatically push a notification when publishing blog posts. This is exactly what happened when LinkedIn severed its ties with WordPress, and Twitter before it.

It’s Whose Content?

Occasionally, users are made aware of how little control they have over content they created. Invariably, a huge uproar ensues. The latest is Facebook’s retooling of its content re-use ToS. Often, the criticism directed at the SoNet misses the mark because most people don’t understand that terms of service must be written to protect the company from lawsuits, so they can operate without user obstruction. If a SoNet doesn’t have blanket rights to uploaded content, it could run afoul of legal privacy concerns or may not be able to operate its back end as efficiently as it needs to.

Dialogue is skewed because of a lack of understanding: In order for a SoNetCorp to provide its service without charging a fee, it has to support itself with other revenue streams. The real issues are how users, who are like blood pressure for the SoNetCorp, are treated by these no-fee services in search of alternative revenue.

There are two primary revenue streams for no-fee SoNetCorps:

  1. Selling advertising that users see each time they access the service.
  2. Selling collective demographic information so advertising can be targeted toward the appropriate users.

Selling advertising is a necessary evil if a company wants to be able to produce a product and distribute it at a reduced or no-fee basis. Commercial television and radio are based on this model and, for the most part, it works well.

Your Data’s Value

The Internet is the only mass two-way communications medium on the planet. It opened up the possibility for advertisers to analyze usage patterns and use Big Data algorithms to derive values relationships among users.

Values relationships are not always obvious and collecting this information before the Internet required interviews and user polls. My article about it, which I published just over a year ago, Social Networking, You Are the Product, explores this facet of gathering target audience demographics and how SoNets benefit from your sharing information about yourself. The short version is that it used to be expensive to improve a brand’s advertising. Now it’s a matter of tapping into the plethora of SoNets. If people that like brand X also love TV Personality Y and Activity Z, then the ads they see should feature X,Y and Z to cement their loyalty. It also helps advertisers identify new customers who also like X because of Y and Z.

Neither one of these approaches are inherently evil, in the sense that they are hostile to users. However, combine them with people at the reins of your data who are naïve about privacy and secure data handling, and you have the potential for causing real damage to SoNet. We’ve all heard of cases where information leaks cause everything from drama to death. But the topic of the hazards of private leaks has been beaten into the ground, and I cut out an entire section of this post about the harm it can and has caused.

A lot of engineering resources go into refining these data-mining algorithms instead of improving usability of the service. The needs of the user take a backseat to the people paying the bills: the advertisers and investors. In fact, user interests are more than likely in the trunk, where they are out of site [SIC]. This Web fracking has devalued all the SoNets for a simple reason: A person only has so much time to devote to social media. Eventually, SoNets will be commodities and so easy to create, and advertisers will pay the SoNetCorps less and less for data that is less and less novel, and so less and less valuable. The next “Webolution” will be .bomb 2.0.

No matter what, the current business model will lead to more and more instances of the SoNetCorps making their services more of a hassle to use than Freemium models, where the base level of service is free, but premium capabilities cost money. As App.net’s @DaltonC puts it, “Keeps business interests aligned with user interests.” This natural alignment means focusing on development that makes a service easier to use and that adds features that are actual conveniences — not Trojan horses for more advertising and demographics gathering.

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