Media Review/Debunking Uninformed Media Coverage of Social Networks

Spats on the Road of Transformation—Backlash Right on Schedule

oreilleAs the Web 2.0 Adoption Curve, 2009-2015 predicts, there will be a significant backlash against social networks during 2009-2010 because the market’s perceived value of social networks is much higher than its skill with the tools, and this will result in inflated expectations and disappointments. Most decision makers are distracted by social networks’ novelty and features, and they overlook the obvious, that social networks offer a quantum leap in productivity for developing and managing relationships.

The MSM (mainstream media) have at best an ambivalent relationship with social networks because the latter weaken their monopoly on influence and mass communications. Consequently, they face a double barrier in understanding social networks’ value proposition: 1) like the rest of the market, they require time to understand how they can best use social networks in meaningful ways and 2) since they perceive social networks as challengers, they are too ready to be dismissive. Executives will be well served to keep this in mind lest they be influenced into rejecting social networks’ promise too hastily.

To illustrate the point, I will comment on Facebook Exodus from the New York Times as an example of self-indulgent journalism that will add to the backlash. Expect a wave of such press in the coming months.

Point Counterpoint

Facebook Exodus appeared in the NYT Magazine, so the fact that it is a personal account rather than factual is somewhat excusable even if unfortunate because the NYT’s brand is synonymous with news. Ironically, the article does a nice job of reflecting the ignorance in much of the market, which is normal in the early stages of adoption of disruptive innovations like social networking. I’ll attempt to show this by commenting on the topic sentences of each of its paragraphs. These appear in the same order as in the article.

Quoted from Article


1. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Facebook, the online social grid, could not command loyalty forever. This is a sweeping statement that the author does not support by numbers; the reader comes to learn that the author is mostly referring to her own social graph.
2. The exodus is not evident from the site’s overall numbers. Nonetheless, a quick hat tip to reality.
3. Leif Harmsen, once a Facebook user, now crusades against it. The article quotes some interesting thoughts by Harmsen, but it declines to give any specific criticism of the site, deferring to casting aspersions: “What especially galls him is the commercialization and corporate regulation of personal and social life.” There are many possible and factually valid criticisms of Facebook the company and its policies, but none are in evidence here.
4. “The more dependent we allow ourselves to become to something like Facebook — and Facebook does everything in its power to make you more dependent — the more Facebook can and does abuse us,” Harmsen explained. Same response as to #3. I love this quote of Harmsen: “It is not ‘your’ Facebook profile. It is Facebook’s profile about you.” This is extremely relevant and begs for a more detailed treatment but doesn’t get it here. In fact, both are true: your profile is yours and Facebook’s, and the relationship is being negotiated on the fly. The author completely misses the point that Facebook is a business, and it will act like a business at the end of the day. However, members are active and insist on their rights. Because they are connected and mobilized, they can coordinate action; for example, leaving en masse if Facebook the business goes too far, as it has several times before (Beacon, the Q1 2009 terms of service flap). For an excellent treatment of the terms of service altercation, see Wired’s account.
5. The disillusionment with Facebook has come in waves. Not much fact here, just vague mentions of individuals being disaffected.
6. My friend Alex joined four years ago at the suggestion of “the coolest guy on the planet,” she told me in an e-mail message. Another anecdote, but the description of Alex is useful because it reflects a demographic that seems to be approaching Facebook without much purpose beyond entertainment. Social networks are rapidly evolving, and they do require considerable resources to run. It would have helped the author’s cred to at least acknowledge that fact at some point.
7. Another friend, who didn’t want his name used, found that Facebook undermined his whole notion of online friendship. This paragraph, although vague, reflects an inherent problem of digital social networks that most members don’t appreciate: every individual wants to share how s/he wants to share, but the platform has to take into account every member. From a technology perspective, the platform must either offer few choices that are relatively easy to understand or offer more choices that come with complexity. This “friend” didn’t understand Facebook’s permissions, which currently offer the most granular control of any major platform, but members do need to keep current on them to ensure they know the ramifications of how they interact. It’s a very dynamic situation, and permissions are not trivial. Any digital content can spread further faster than any other. Here are some excellent guides that are updated regularly.
8. That friend was not the only Facebook dissenter who was reticent about specifics. Many seem to have just lost their appetite for it: Another paragraph that recounts general disillusionment. But it’s useful because it shows that, just like with any human endeavor, you must have a purpose with some means to measure your progress and focus (and limit) your activity. This needn’t be a business purpose. “Wasting time on it” reflects someone who didn’t know what s/he was trying to accomplish. My experience with advising firms and individuals shows that this lack of purpose characterizes most people right now. For more on this, see Countering Social Networks’ Unique Challenges with the Relationship Life Cycle.
9. But then came the truly weird part: “Facebook was stalking me,” Harting wrote. A good example of not understanding the features. It sounds like Harting was using Facebook Connect and had no idea of the ramifications. Facebook Connect is a feature that enables members to log in to (Facebook) partner websites using Facebook credentials. However, once the member does that, s/he will be sharing certain information to and from his/her social graph with the partner website. For more, see Facebook’s pitch and some third party articles.
10. Julie Klam, a writer and prolific and eloquent Facebook updater, said in her own e-mail message, “I have noticed the exodus, and I kind of feel like it’s kids getting tired of a new toy.” Same response as #6 and #8. If you approach social networks as you would a vapid new TV series or restaurant to which you turn when you are bored or are “looking for something new,” you may not gain much fulfillment. Since social networks are merely tools for developing relationships, you get out of them what you put into them.
11. Is Facebook doomed to someday become an online ghost town, run by zombie users who never update their pages and packs of marketers picking at the corpses of social circles they once hoped to exploit? Sounds like a parting wish. Zombies by definition have no will or purpose, so this is an extreme metaphor for aimless social networking. True, some Facebook members are addicted to numbers and “how popular” they are. Significant others can get jealous by observing the object of their affection interacting with other people. One recent preliminary study found that Facebook did increase jealousy. However, this has little to do with the platform and more to do with the person’s motivations and character.


  • Qmark_relationshipA key premise underlying this post is that social networks are tools that help people to create and manage larger networks than they could before, but social networks only become truly valuable for most people and companies when they are approached with a relationship-centric attitude and purpose. I tackle this in more detail in Countering Social Networks’ Unique Challenges with the Relationship Life Cycle.
  • By no means am I suggesting that the companies that launch social networking platforms are altruists in whom we can invest unquestioning trust. Make no mistake, most of them are Type A competitors who are trying to dominate some aspect of the Web 2.0 ecosystem.
  • At the same time, users are primarily responsible for informing themselves about how social networks work. As I tried to show above, virtually all the vague criticisms cited by the author had to do with users who were uninformed about the tools or had unclear goals about how to use Facebook to reach their goals.
  • I hope the above exercise helped you to understand how misinformed writers and editors can add cacophony and detract from discussing important issues. Expect a crescendo over the next six-eight months.
  • There are many valid criticisms and concerns to discuss about social networks, some of which were obliquely mentioned here. Some good resources for astute commentary and criticism are: the Read Write Web, Wired, Mashable, All Facebook, Inside Facebook. Here are my hand-picked articles on Facebook.
  • Also see What to Share on Twitter and Facebook, which points out flaws in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
  • The MSM, like other market leaders who are threatened by the prospect of connected citizens, will often not be a source of accurate information about social networks. Obviously, there are many exceptions to this, but reader beware!

3 comments to Media Review/Debunking Uninformed Media Coverage of Social Networks

  • csrollyson

    Update.. another bad sign for the New York Times and its management: comments on the article were fairly balanced, but they were closed (only 85). Even worse, editors highlighted one of the more clueless responses (that supported the article, btw ,^) from “John” who used Facebook for two weeks some time ago. This makes the NYT look far worse. Really feeble.

  • You either understand the age-old issues of ownership and control, or you will remain powerless and abused. When you command your OWN website and your OWN email and your OWN domain, you are in control of your identity – social networks and communications. If you use proprietary shenanigans like Facebook, or rather, if Facebook uses you, you give up control. You cheapen yourself. The concrete examples are legion, online and off, from proprietary printer ink to land ownership, censorship to identity theft, from sub-prime mortgages to apps that let you import but not export your data. It takes some basic political astuteness to see proprietary shenanigans for what they are and avoid them throughout your life. They can see you coming and will gladly lead you around by the nose. Some things you have to do yourself and never give control to others (especially not to those who plan to exploit you), like voting, socializing, and owning a bank account.

    • csrollyson

      Leif, thanks for writing. You bring up many important and interesting points. I agree that Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace and any other free platform we use can act in ways that betray trust. That is a risk of using a free platform that’s created and managed by someone else. And all these are businesspeople, they are trying to monetize their platforms. Here are a couple reasons that I use platforms, even though I host my own blogs and websites, too:

      Since platforms’ members are connected with each other, they can influence the platforms considerably, as I’ve referenced here with Facebook. If management goes too far, people will enforce their rights, if not legally, by moving on

      If you are focused on relationships first and platform and features second, you can take your network and move it. I have done this, although to add connectivity, not to leave a platform. The migration from MySpace to Facebook is legend. Keep in mind that, even if half your network follows you, they will probably be connected with the people who didn’t. For the most important connections, you will have redundancy.

      This brings up another point: this stuff isn’t easy; it requires some foresight and management to avoid being too dependent on a platform.

      I recommend to clients to use platforms for certain things; unlike your own site, platforms are huge aggregators: a lot of people are there, so when you have your own site(s), it can be very effective to conduct outreach on platforms. The transaction cost is lower for someone to interact with you on a platform because they’re already there doing something else.

      How do you feel about other platforms? What others have you tried?

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