The decline of sharing
In his 2015 book The Content Code, Mark W. Schaefer points out that even great content isn’t enough. “But epic content simply earns a seat at the table today. The real power only comes to those who can create content that connects, engages and moves through the network through social sharing. ” (Schaefer 2015) Schaefer puts forward the idea that social shares are really the gold standard of social marketing: people take action often based on the recommendations of their friends. If a friend of yours shares a piece of content on a social platform, that gives that post added weight and is more likely to result in a sale or donation. If a post is not shared, it is likely useless as a marketing tool.
BuzzSumo Director Steve Rayson recently released Content Trends Report 2018 (Rayson 2018). Unfortunately, the findings of this report aren’t good news for marketers, or social media in general. Social sharing is down 50% since 2015. Rayson attributes this steep decrease to two factors: a rise in private sharing (e.g., messenger apps) and to a decline in organic reach on Facebook. Fewer posts are being seen in general, due in large part to Facebook’s algorithm, which often only shows posts with the most engagement by default.
Content shock does contribute to this issue as well. Rayson’s report also found that the more posts in a particular topic area, the fewer the number of shares. Simply put, social media consumers are overwhelmed. It’s not possible to share as much, especially when the amount of shared content continues to rise at an exponential rate.
Data and privacy
In March 2018, it was found that Cambridge Analytica, a shady political consulting firm that worked for the Trump presidential campaign, had retained copies of private data for about 50 million Facebook users. This was despite having assured Facebook that it would delete the data in 2015 (Lee 2018). This incident highlighted potential lax handling of user data and privacy at Facebook and brought it to the forefront of public consciousness. Mark Zuckerburg, the creator of Facebook, was requested to testify about the incident in front of Congress. The hashtag “#DeleteFacebook” went viral. By April 2018, 1 in 10 Americans reported having deleted their Facebook accounts entirely, while 35% of Facebook users said they now used the platform less than they used to (Leswing 2018).
In 2014, a Pew Internet study found that 91% of Americans “agree” or “strongly agree” that they have lost control of how their personal information is collected and used online (Madden 204). Another Pew study, in 2017, found that only 9% of social media users were confident in the efforts of social media companies to protect their data (Pew Research Center 2017).
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook proceeded to do an audit of thousands of applications that tie into Facebook and/or its data. In May of 2018, Facebook found and suspended 200 different apps for the misuse of personal data (Seppala 2018).
It’s not just Facebook, either. Instagram experienced a significant data breach, affecting up to six million users, in 2017 (Clark 2017). Twitter experienced a “glitch” in May of 2018 that potentially exposed the passwords of at least some users in plain text (Finkle 2018). In 2014, as many as 4.6 million Snapchat users learned that their phone numbers and usernames had been illegally downloaded by a third-party website (Fung 2014). Few, if any, social media channels have been unaffected by data or privacy breaches. This ongoing state of insecurity can only be contributing to users’ negative feelings about social media.
Despite all of the issues currently surrounding social media and potentially causing its decline, it’s likely not realistic for libraries to stop participating. At the very least, many people expect modern-day organizations to have a presence on social media. Social media is also often viewed as a platform for customer service (Newman 2016). To suddenly pull up stakes could be problematic for patrons and libraries alike and throws away the available benefits.
However, it’s critical for us to recognize that social media is also evolving. On some level, this is not a surprise, since many of us have known for some time that young adults and teens have moved away from Facebook and moved to other, newer platforms. But, for most of us, we’ve only considered this shift to be one of demographics. We usually haven’t stopped to consider that they’re moving to a completely different type of social platform.
What we’re seeing now is something quite different. Younger generations have rebuffed the more “traditional” social network in favor of what are essentially messaging applications. The rising popularity of channels such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, Kik and even Facebook Messenger, is testament to a fundamental change in behavior. Mike Elgan, in his Computerworld opinion piece “I’m calling it: Social networking is over,” explains it this way: “Unlike social networking, messaging is private, temporary and immediate. More to the point, messaging normally doesn’t go out to one’s broader ‘social network.’ Messaging content tends to be targeted to one or a few individuals, with the majority of one’s ‘social network’ left out on purpose. Using a messaging app feels like ‘sending’ something, not ‘posting’ something. ” (Elgan 2016)
Youth is moving away from permanent, fixed social media platforms. This is another shift that should not take us by surprise: young people have now been warned, for some time, that what they post online could be used against them by future colleges or employers. Messaging apps give teens more flexibility and less need to control their online presence (Duncan 2016). Taken in context with the ongoing change in demographics of more conventional social media such as Facebook (which has consistently moved towards older users), Millennials and Generations Y and Z have essentially begun a flight to a new realm…one where they can be more themselves and where the “olds” cannot follow.
To be fair, libraries have almost always had a difficult time reaching young people via social media, even when they were omnipresent on Facebook. When I was writing The Librarian’s Nitty-Gritty Guide to Social Media in 2013, I had a difficult time even finding libraries that could claim any kind of success in communicating with teens via social media. So, this is not a new problem; the main issue we have to grasp is that we will not likely see a mass return by younger users to traditional social media. They’ve moved on to messaging apps, which do not work on the “one to many” communication model. They’ve fled to hang out with their friends…and only their friends. Some libraries may make inroads in this scenario, but not many.
That leaves libraries with primarily Gen Xers and older as the remaining audiences for their social media efforts. These are the demographics that still mostly use Facebook et al. But, as discussed earlier, even they are beginning to become disillusioned with social media as a medium. If the older generations’ presence is slowing fading away and is not being replaced by new, younger users, what does this mean for libraries?
Unfortunately, there are no good answers. Even if current calls for regulation and/or restructuring of social media are heeded, resulting at least some staunching of the mass departure, that won’t solve the fundamental need to reach younger users—now, or in the future.
Creating more content won’t make a library more interesting at this point in the game. There’s simply too much already, as the concept of content shock makes clear. We’re living in an attention economy, and it’s become an outright war to grab a share of it. Elgan describes this phenomenon as “social networking is being outrun by a universe of professional attention-grabbers. The attention economy is a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest contest, and your Aunt Mildred with her cat photos and Uncle Fester with his political rants just can’t keep up.” (Elgan 2016) What is happening now is that there is less actual social activity, and much more of an ongoing battle to monetize the activity on social channels with ever-evolving, attention-grabbing items and algorithm tweaks.
There is little or no good news in this evolution for libraries or, frankly, most businesses or organizations. Social media is slowing morphing into something that is more commercialized, and social networking as we have known it may be disappearing almost entirely. It’s likely that libraries will still need to maintain a presence on popular platforms but will probably not need to put in the effort that they might be making now. It’s conceivable that channels such as Facebook may simply become a more interactive form of the Yellow Pages, where the ads change regularly.
Libraries need to start preparing themselves for the eventuality that social media will become a vastly different medium, with possibly a very different audience, than they have been accustomed to working with. As social media evolves into something else, so must the ways in which libraries interact online.
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