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The future of social networks is micro-communities

When is a social media platform not a social media platform? Scratch the surface a little and we see advertising networks disguised as social networks, which they also clearly are.

Today’s platforms are typically billed as social networks where people connect with each. At one level they clearly are. But scratch the surface a little and we see advertising networks disguised as social networks, which they also clearly are.

For users, missteps in the areas of privacy and accountability have created an environment where many platform users don’t fully trust the motives or the judgment of those that operate social media platforms. The exploitation of user data is no longer masked; it’s out there for all to see.  A rail road has been run through privacy reducing it to a quaint concept; this can no longer be hidden.

User decline

This probably accounts in no small part for the recent decline in Facebook users. A 2018 Infinite Dial survey by Edison Research explores how Americans use social media, audio services and other technology. The study revealed that Facebook users fell from 67 percent of Americans aged 12 and older to 62 percent of the same audience. Other platforms are experiencing user decline. In 2018 Twitter’s user numbers also fell for first time ever.

In isolation this might not seem much but given Facebook’s steady, upward trajectory since 2008, it’s a marked difference.  However without real competition, both users and brands have little choice but to stay on existing platforms or risk losing their social connections altogether.

Behaviour is changing

But if we take a wider perspective the decline in social media users can be seen as signal that user preferences are changing.  Certainly there has been a shift among users aged 12 to 34 towards more image orientated platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram, as recorded in the 2018 Infinite Dial study.

Part of this move lies in the fact that social media usage has become centralized. For instance, if you have a Facebook account you have connections with friends, family, brands and services that are of interest. But when you post something it’s unlikely that it will resonate with all your connections. Rather, it’s more likely that only a small percentage will respond or acknowledge your contribution.

Tweeting until the cows come home

Similarly you can tweet all day and beyond your followers nobody will take notice unless you’re famous, are offering a fabulous deal or service or are giving away money. Similarly a Facebook ‘like’ does not build a relationship. Relationships are established over time via trusted networks and human interactions.

A clue to where social media users are headed is in the growing popularity of micro-influencers. These are people who have already built an audience and established trust and relationships with their followers through their stories. Importantly they don’t blatantly sell to their followers. Brands have cottoned on to this and leverage micro-influencers to share their brand story, that is if they willing to do so.

Splintering

In a sense what we are seeing is a splintering of social media users into micro-communities and interestingly one which reflects the real world. People who follow micro-influencers do so because they are interested in the stories which reflect their own interests and their own lives. This relatively new phenomena provides a separation between the things that people really love without preaching the message to everybody.

We are seeing the same thing at Humans.net. One of the things that called out for attention when we completed the trial of our third generation social network was the creation of micro-communities based on shared interests. The word micro suggests something infinitely small but these micro-communities can consist of thousands of users.

Grass roots change

The reason for their growth is simple. In the UK music industry for example, many musicians and artists used social media to promote themselves through their content.

However, by far the majority saw little return while the platform benefitted from their activity by scooping up their data and selling it on to advertisers. This has led to the creation of a small dedicated platform aimed exclusively at artists and music fans.

We are doing this on a much larger scale at Humans.net but it’s the users who are creating their own micro-communities based on what services they are looking for or the skills they are selling. These micro-communities represent how we socialise in the real world, with different social circles and varied career, work and social interests.

Does anybody know…?

If for example, you were to use Facebook in the same way it simply doesn’t work. If you’re looking for someone to line your loft with insulation and install a few solar panels and you put this message out the responses will be along the line of ”I know a man…” or if you’re lucky you may receive a link to a company website.

However, with micro-communities you put the same message out and you’ll likely be directed to another micro-community who provides these services along with verifiable references from many people. In short you’ll go straight to the heart of what you’re seeking and you will also have a wealth of references to choose from.

Eclipsing the second generation

And the participants in the micro-community also benefit. They attract work, engage with peers and employ skilled people if that is their requirement. Users share content directly to peers and interested parties without the need to rely on a third-party platform that isn’t a social network in its truest sense but rather an advertising network.

These micro-communities are one way of characterising third generation social networking. Brands would do well to keep abreast of its growth because it’s going to become much bigger and will eventually eclipse today’s second generation social platforms.


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