176 years ago, Karl Marx was intrigued by how individuals are influenced by social institutions which grow to define society. In his view, the most addictive form of dependency-based social control at the time was religion. If he were writing today, he might instead be thinking “Social media is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” While religions still have their detractors, today social media carries the weight of concern over damage to and exploitation of the mental state of individuals.
The global surrender to Facebook by more than two billion people was the fastest and most successful revolution of all time. I say surrender rather than adoption because adoption suggests conscious controlled commitment; surrender more accurately reflects the compulsive abandonment of control which Facebook induced.
In Marx’s view the rise of communism would be aided by the inevitable downfall of bourgeois democracy, which carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. The people would take over the means of production, because without the compliance of the people the owners of those means of production had but an empty platform for the creation of wealth. As it turned out, without the bourgeois capitalists, the creation of the means of production in the first place proved problematic, so capitalism was a prerequisite for communism’s viability.
The algorithm age
Fast forward to 2019. Just as converts in the past became enamored with the great wealth-sharing idealism of the socialist movement, today’s Facebook converts fell in love with the great personal privacy-sharing culture of the social media movement. But social media is not socialist — it is unashamedly capitalist. The major platforms are powerful means of wealth production for the owners; and the workers doing the producing (the users) labor night and day for free. What the platforms produce and sell is user attention. The active ingredient is personal transparency.
While Marx would probably admire the pace and power of the revolution, he’d probably be appalled at the exploitation of free labor and the mounting wealth of the few capitalist owners. But he’d draw some consolation from knowing that social media carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. The two interrelated engines at the core of major social platforms — surveillance-derived data and algorithmic experience manipulation — while commercially brilliant, are ethically untenable.
Algorithms are used to provide the most satisfying yet addictive experience to each user, determining what content is seen from whom and amping up those feedback loops which deliver most active repeat engagement with the platform. That engagement produces revealing data which the surveillance engines use to enable surgical targeting of advertising and content. Advertisers love the hyper-targetability of users and their compulsive presence in the platforms, so profits grow. Those profits are invested in ever more intrusive surveillance and ever more beguiling algorithms.
Facebook will hit the wall of its own lack of customer empathy. It will be brought down by its unashamed exploitation of individual privacy and its calculated architecture of addiction. People don’t like being disrespected or abused by massive corporations, nor do they like the brands which finance that exploitation. As workers once rose up against capitalists, when the users of social media realize how they have been duped, they will rise up against the platforms. None are too big to fail.
Attention-hacking has consequences
There was a time not so long ago when social media made people more cheerful. You’d happily hang out in chat rooms, listserves, or forums and have real conversations about things in which you had genuine interest. Now social platforms paradoxically de-personalize the connection between people at the same time as conducting intensely personal scrutiny of each individual. Social platforms are where real people become fake, and fake people become real. Users define their own value by the casual unthinking feedback they receive in the form of likes, emoji or retweets from total strangers. And their mental health is damaged in the process.
According to the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, social media is linked to depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality, lower self-esteem, inattention, and hyperactivity, especially in teens and adolescents. Cynically designed algorithms exploit social surveillance to maximize engagement addiction, and to optimize advertising. This algorithmic behavior manipulation has made the social media experience increasingly toxic.
The spiral of affirmation-seeking inevitably leads to failure for the individual. Neurologically, the anticipation of satisfaction is more rewarding — and addictive — than the satisfaction itself. There is a reason marketers call them users. The thrill of the anticipated win, and not the payout, is why people become addicted to activities like gambling and social scrolling. Anybody can become hooked on the micro doses of dopamine released into the brain in moments of anticipation, and the architecture of affirmation-anticipation in social platforms exploits this mercilessly. Users keep going back to check for likes, hearts, shares or comments. When these don’t come, the sadness, depression and reduction in self-worth start to mount. Ephemeral content, which expires in minutes or hours, and urges others to respond quickly, concentrates this craving for affirmation and amplifies the dependency.
Quality advertising targets migrate away
Where once social media usage made people feel connected and valued, it now makes many of them feel sad and lonely. Unhappy people use social media more than happy people do. As marketers we need to be aware that, as they become less attentive and less receptive, the “attention-quality” of those we target on social media is degrading.
However an advertiser targets a Facebook audience, the resulting cluster will contain a mix of people who have a receptive, positive state of mind, those who are zoned out and scrolling, and many in between. The impression experience of each will differ substantially based on the quality of attention each is paying to their online environment.
As people lose interest in, or become alienated by, the social experience on a platform, the quality of their attention declines, and so their value to advertisers diminishes. Over time, those with the strongest affinity to the advertiser’s targeted interest (for example fitness enthusiasts) remove themselves from platforms like Facebook and transfer their loyalty to a niche network (such as a local fitness support community), where the people they encounter are more relevant and there is a greater sense of community and trust. This depletes the Facebook audience of quality marketing prospects — and pumps up the advertising value of the niche network.
Social media marketers typically confine their activities to the big platforms. Facebook’s $67 billion in ad revenue accounts for 83% of all social advertising (eMarketer). Because it appears to have massive targetable reach, Facebook is a simple default. But in pouring time and money into Facebook, marketers miss out on high-value audiences who are deeply engaged in giving quality time and attention to personally relevant niche communities. As Facebook’s active quality user base migrates elsewhere, it is strategically smart for marketers to follow them.
The inevitable fragmentation of social platforms
So far, despite the abuse engineered into its systems, users en masse have not yet started blaming Facebook and other platforms for mood manipulation, or for vulnerability to commercial or political targeting. Nor have they started resenting the paymasters who fund this abuse — the brands who advertise.
However, as with traditional print media and television, it is inevitable that the major social platforms will lose a large part of their user base and users will migrate into niche networks. Once, there were two or three newspapers in any city, but over time new publications with more focused themes emerged till the sector became flooded with special interest publications. Advertising revenues were spread thin. Then technology stepped in and sucked away the industry’s customer base. The same happened in TV and magazines. The fragmentation of the social media space will happen rapidly, catching off guard many of the big players in the industry — platforms, ad agencies, social media agencies and brands. Already we are seeing people graduate from active use of public platforms to more private conversational messaging platforms and networks.
Originally, social platforms provided the world with tools to facilitate connecting with friends, family and like-minded people. Because we are social creatures, people adopted these tools and, encouraged by compelling feedback loops, happily started giving away their interests, needs, connections and personal privacy. Brands were encouraged to join in and create content which would attract and grow fan bases, billed as their own dedicated audiences. Brands invested, at first cautiously, then whole-heartedly in content and engagement strategies to build and consolidate their audiences. Throughout this, the platforms improved their tools, but never invested in creating content.
Then, as monetization pressure mounted, Facebook started taking away from brands any way to engage with their own fan base, replacing organic reach with tools which allowed surgical targeting of paid promotional content. Brands started paying to access the audiences which they had already invested in creating; and they had no problem with Facebook selling their audience to competing brands. It was an astonishingly brazen hustle on the part of Facebook, and other platforms followed. Some users, unhappy with the sense of big brother targeting them, started using the platform less, or just left.
Anxious to stem the disgruntlement, the platforms started amping up the algorithms and providing different forms of engagement, such as ephemeral experiences or more coherent groups. The spiral of surveillance and manipulation intensified. Some of the privacy implications started to become public, through data leaks, scandals and fake news campaigns, or through Senate, DOJ or FTC hearings, or EU legislation. And although it was fun for the more digitally savvy to see Mark Zuckerberg deal patronizingly with befuddled politicians, it was also disturbing to see the apparently smug lack of concern he expressed for users of the platform. Public condemnation began breeding private discomfort.
Neither platform users nor marketers like increasing complexity, or liability, so they start looking around for simpler, more trustworthy, more relevant places to engage. Reported daily active users across Facebook’s constellation of apps may be rising as the platform reaches new markets, but the nature and quality of that usage is inevitably changing. The major platforms will lose influential users, along with advertisers and media power, and new social ecosystems will emerge.
Over the coming three years, many users will come to regard Facebook (and similar services) as deliberate abusers of their personal privacy and cynical damagers of self-esteem. Kicking the habit will be hard for many, but any platform which grows virally can decline virally. Among Gen Z, while Instagram remains strong, Facebook is already on its way out.
Brands will come to regard Facebook as one of the greatest corporate bait-and-switch scams of the century. Niche community networks founded on trust and specific mutual interests will blossom. Advertising will fall, and experience sponsorship will rise.
Social media marketers need to get ahead of this, and start establishing their brands as valuable contributors to the networks that really matter to their target audiences. The members of those networks are empowered, positive and influential; those remaining in the major platforms are increasingly exploited, depressed and dependent.
Attention retention gets harder
Attention retention will be via trusted passion-specific communities. Quality content on the web is finally having the courage to invoke subscriptions and paywalls, even walled gardens — a pivot led by the great revolutionary force of music. Just as quality newspapers, magazines, music and movie streamers are gaining paid users, social platforms are carving out valued relevant spaces for users to have meaningful private conversations. Slack launched Channels, Reddit has subreddits, Instagram has Threads, and even Facebook is trying to revitalize the way Groups functions in a branded space.
Brands should of course make use of these opportunities to reach more relevant communities. But they should also consider creating or acquiring their own social spaces. One of the downsides of building brand communities on third party platforms has always been that you never get to own them — the data, the identities of your members, even the look, feel and UX of the environment are controlled by the platform, not the brand. Your customer community should be a brand asset, not a liability.
The argument that brands are in the business of making their product, and not in the business of creating communities, became specious years ago when brands started being defined by their CX. Today, customer experience is one of the only sustainable differentiators in a brand’s arsenal, and a passionate community is its biggest driver. Back in 2013, Amazon acquired Goodreads to connect book enthusiasts and to own the resulting insights. Recently they bought Twitch for nearly $1 billion to get in with the gaming community. A brand’s social strategy has to go beyond content calendars, to include contributing to, owning, or creating the niche networks where quality relationships can be fostered.
Sophia Amoruso (ex-CEO of NastyGal) recently launched girlboss, a “sleeker, more millennial-friendly alternative to LinkedIn” designed to give women in business a place to connect, learn and prosper. It leverages the feminine empowerment Zeitgeist, and avoids the all-things-for-all-people cacophony of Facebook. Karl Marx, who believed that “great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment” would probably approve.
There are many other niche networks for specific communities. Nextdoor is a safe geographically ring-fenced network for members of a neighborhood. Untappd is a network for beer lovers. Mothers can network among themselves at CafeMom. Inspire is for patients and healthcare professionals. Designers can hang out together at Dribble or Behance. Seniors find a home at ThirdAge. Facebook is the Model-T Ford of social media — we are only at the beginning.
Going to the dark side
Social media is evolving, but it is still influential. Members of Gen Z like direct-to-consumer brands, and more than half of their brand discovery comes from social channels (eMarketer). But increasingly this brand discovery happens in niche networks and dark conversations — where people feel safe, and recommendations are trusted. Brands have to invest in sponsoring or engaging with authentic social environments, and social media agencies should evolve into masters of trusted conversational marketing.
Dark conversational social, encrypted messaging, subcultures and tribalism are all growing, making it harder to monitor or analyze. But social media intelligence tools are evolving too, looking to understand not only what is being said, but why. As AI is applied to vast unstructured databases, tools are emerging which can provide valuable social intelligence. While massive investment in AI is building tools within the platforms, third party services are emerging which allow brands to exploit the efficiencies of AI for themselves. Brandwatch, for example, has tools which can do in seconds what a human analyst takes half a day to accomplish.
But here’s the dilemma for social advertisers: The tools which optimize ad campaigns leverage personal data generated within the platform through surveillance of user interactions and conversations. The fact that “personally identifiable” data is not made available directly to the advertiser is largely irrelevant, as is the more or less harmless application of it in targeting ads. Exploiting personal data benignly does not mitigate the enabling offence of privacy invasion. If you are funding surveillance, you are complicit. If you advertise on Facebook, you are enabling the creation and deployment of increasingly invasive personal data collection practices, and increasingly effective personal behavior manipulation processes.
Do your social media and privacy policies acknowledge and accept this?
Marx and Zuckerberg are both world-changing revolutionaries, one using the written word and the other using code. Their revolutionary ideals were both vulnerable to corruption, which ultimately damaged their credibility. Both inspired the masses to action with a promise of personal upliftment. But their similarities end there. Marx offered a platform to attain economic fairness; Zuckerberg offered a platform for self-promotion. Marx sought to alleviate personal alienation; Zuckerberg amplified it. Marx wanted to end exploitation of the individual by the wealthy; Zuckerberg facilitated it.
In Zuckerberg’s defense, much of Facebook’s negative impact was neither planned nor intended, whereas Marx knew exactly what he was doing. Marx was advocating a compelling idea; Zuckerberg was pushing a compelling technology. And technologies are much easier to change than ideas. Once Marx’s thinking was in the wild there was no turning back — but Zuckerberg has the opportunity, the incentive and the capital to still turn Facebook into a power for good.
Announcing Facebooks pivot toward privacy, he said “As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.” But it will be multiple platforms, not one. They will foster true communities, neither a town hall nor a living room. And those communities will be bonded together by shared interests, deep trust and a common consciousness.
Marx said “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness.” What kind of social being does your brand want to be? And is it living up to this standard in the way it uses social media?