Social media isn't what it used to be - learn why Facebook and Twitter are declining
December 8, 2022
The social media age is coming to an end. Social media platforms founded in the 2000s are struggling. Understanding the decline and fall of these platforms is critical to anyone seeking to build an engaged audience online.
Before 2010, social websites were focused mainly on relationships with people you knew (I should know, I built one in 2003). The early iterations of social platforms focused on networking rather than content and media. For example, Four Square was about sharing your location with others. Check in at a location, like your local coffee shop, often enough, and you’d earn recognition as the mayor. You’d also have the opportunity to meet other people who liked the same location. Sharing status updates, photos, and videos weren’t the primary focus.
In the 2010s, social media platforms as we knew them took off. Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube let you follow or subscribe to accounts even if you don’t know them. Even LinkedIn, which once prompted users only to connect with people they knew, switched to emphasize publishing articles and videos in recent years.
Over the past decade, networking and socializing have declined as the primary use case of social websites. Instead, these services have increasingly focused on content distribution and increased engagement. Increased smartphone usage and the drive to increase time spent on these platforms drove much of this evolution.
Smartphone adoption set the stage for increased social usage because users no longer had to return to their desks to post updates. By 2015, two-thirds of American adults had a smartphone, which grew to 85% by 2021, according to Statista. This boom in smartphone adoption means that most of the population has an Internet-connected camera and computer in their pocket most of the time.
Engagement may be even more critical. Reading a few short status updates from your friends is interesting, but that would only keep you on the platform for a few minutes. That’s why several social platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook effectively offer unlimited content feeds to users today. These platforms have become so successful in creating engagement that they are often criticized as addictive or detrimental to mental health.
Facebook and Twitter are often mentioned together as major social media platforms suffering a decline. In reality, these platforms have different histories and problems. The decline in these platforms
Like Google, Facebook is fundamentally dependent on advertisers. The business has had some struggles retaining advertisers on the platform. In 2020, multiple advertisers, including Adidas, Coca-Cola, Ford, SAP, Starbucks, and Unilever, boycotted Facebook over hate speech concerns. A Coca-Cola spokesperson told the New York Times: “we expect greater accountability, action, and transparency from [Facebook.” The boycott was based on Facebook’s perceived inability to handle hate speech and misinformation.
It’s not just misinformation that advertisers question social media platforms like Facebook. In 2022, Facebook removed some advertising targeting options for health causes, sexual orientation, religion, and political beliefs. These changes caused headaches for many advertisers who have built campaigns based on Facebook’s advertising targeting updates.
Questioning the viability of a business that generated $X billion in profit in 2021 might seem odd. However, several signals suggest that the business has made mistakes that may affect its future. Heavy spending on other products and services like virtual reality and metaverse - of which Zuckerberg has reportedly dumped over $36B - has diverted management attention from the company’s core business. Like other technology companies, the business has also announced layoffs in 2022. Significant layoff announcements may impact the company’s ability to recruit and retain talent in the future.
Repeated scandals have undermined confidence in several social media platforms. With more than one billion users, many bad actors see Facebook as an attractive target. Unfortunately, Facebook management has a mixed track record of preventing these problems.
Cambridge Analytica collected data from up to 87 million Facebook users using the Facebook API. As Vox points out, “[Facebook] prohibited the selling of data collected with this method, but Cambridge Analytica sold the data anyway.” The scandal rocked investor confidence in the company - the stock lost $35 billion in value when the scandal broke, according to Fortune. Ultimately, the Federal Trade Commission imposed a $5 billion fine on the company in 2019 for “deceiving users about their ability to keep personal information private.”
Several years after the scandal came to light, it continued to haunt the company. In 2022, a California lawsuit demanded a disposition interview from Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the company, and former chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.
Running a company at Facebook’s scale is challenging. One might question if the company was genuinely informed about what was happening on its platform. Thanks to Frances Haugen’s testimony at Congress in 2021, Facebook’s credibility suffered further. In particular, the company’s research on the mental health effects of its products is striking.
NPR reported that “one Facebook study found that 13.5% of U.K. teen girls in one survey say their suicidal thoughts became more frequent after starting on Instagram. Another leaked study found that 17% of teen girls say their eating disorders worsened after using Instagram.” Facebook management has questioned Haugen’s facts, but the damage may be too severe.
Twitter’s struggle as a social media platform goes much deeper than Facebook's. For example, the company’s profitability record is much less impressive than Facebook's. In 2022, Elon Musk’s takeover of the company led to considerable turmoil. As of writing this, many advertisers and agencies have paused advertising on the platform as a result.
Further, the platform appears to become less effective in stopping hate and other malicious content. USA Today reported that Twitter is taking longer to act on hate speech on the platform in 2022 compared to 2021. The rise in hate speech may be attributed to several factors including Musk’s philosophy as a “free speech absolutist,” and layoffs. The company has laid over more than 3700 employees, nearly 50% of its workforce, according to TechCrunch. The layoffs have been poorly planned - some employees had to be rehired soon after because management realized they were needed.
It’s not just advertisers and employees who are impacted by the turmoil. The company’s ability to reach millions of Apple users may be impacted. Apple has threatened to remove the Twitter app from the Apple app store. Further, CNN reports that Apple appears to have ended advertising on Twitter.
Unfortunately, the platform is struggling with some of the same problems as Facebook - like content moderation and responding to the threat of misinformation.
Generally, social media companies want to maximize their user base and increase engagement. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Twitter was reluctant to ban or suspend users even when their actions violated the company’s policies.
The company’s efforts to prevent harassment and doxing (i.e., publishing and spreading personal information, like an individual's home address, often with malicious intent) have met with criticism. The Guardian summarized the criticism as “So vague, it invites abuse.”
This criticism poses a significant obstacle to brands and publishers active on the platform. When malicious users exploit the platform’s weaknesses to attack others, connecting with users is tough.
Even as Facebook and Twitter suffer from scandals and other problems, users go elsewhere to satisfy their community and social needs. YouTube alone has over 2.6 billion monthly active users, and TikTok has also joined the billion-user club recently. Statista reports the following platforms to have hundreds of millions of users: Telegram (550 million users), Reddit (430 million users), Pinterest (444 million users), and Quora (300 million users). There are still opportunities to build a following on these platforms, especially when you can niche down like Reddit’s many subreddits focused on different interests.
Diversifying away from the largest platforms is one strategy to pursue. Yet, investing too heavily in a substitute social media platform risks ignoring the lessons of history. When you build an audience on another company’s platform, your ability to access that audience is limited. Your strategy needs a renewed focus on building your digital audience. Unlike social media followers, you have a direct connection to the audience on your website.
Relying on search engine optimization, advertising, and other strategies to boost traffic will help bring people to your website. Once people arrive only our website, it is crucial to offer an engaging, social experience. Without a modern, engaging experience, your audience will likely drift back to their favorite social media platforms.
Developing an engaging social experience takes several pillars: content and community.
The first pillar is an engaging content experience. Typically, this means regularly publishing content that entertains or informs your audience. That content gives your audience a reason to keep returning to your website and gradually build trust with you. That said, it’s no longer enough to give your audience plenty of content to consume. To compete with social websites, offering a community experience is vital.
The second pillar is a community experience where people can engage with friends and meet new people. The good news is that you don’t have to rebuild Facebook, Twitter, or other social media experiences on your website. Instead, you can thrive by offering micro-communities with dozens to hundreds of like-minded people. To do that, you simply need to add Arean Live Chat and invite your audience to join digital events. Learn more about Arena Live Chat.