Finding Our Way in the Social Landscape

First published March 6, 2014 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

social-mediaLast month, Om Malik (of GigaOM fame) wrote an article in Fast Company about the user backlash against Facebook.  To be fair, It seems that what’s happening to Facebook is not so much a backlash as apathy. You have to care to lash back. This is more of a wholesale abandonment, as millions of users are going elsewhere – using single purpose apps to get their social media fix. According to the article,

“we cycle between periods in which we want all of our Internet activity consolidated and other times in which we want a bunch of elegant monotaskers. Clearly we have reentered a simplification phase.”

There’s a reason why Facebook has been desperately trying to acquire Snapchat for a reported $3 Billion. There’s also a reason why they picked up Instagram for a billion last year.  It’s because these simple little apps are leaving the home grown Facebook alternatives in the dust. Snapchat is killing Facebook’s Poke – as Mashable pointed out in this comparison.  Snapchat has consistently stayed near the top of App Annie’s most popular download chart for the past 18 months. This coincides exactly with Facebook’s release of Poke.

Screen-Shot-2013-11-14-at-11.29.55-AM

Download rates of Facebook Poke

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Download rates of Snapchat

Malik indicates it’s because we want a simpler, streamlined experience. A recent article in Business Insider goes one step further – Facebook is just not cool anymore. The mere name induces extended eye rolling in teenagers. It’s like parking the family mini-van in the high school parking lot.  “I hate Facebook. It’s just so boring,” said one of the teens interviewed. Hate! That’s a pretty strong word. What did the Zuck ever do to garner such contempt? Maybe it’s because he’s turning 30 in a few months. Maybe it’s because he’s an old married man.

Or maybe it’s just that we have a better alternative. Malik has a good point. He indicates that we tend to oscillate between consolidation and specialization. I take a bit different view. What’s happening in social media is that we’re getting to know the landscape better. We’re finding our way. This isn’t so much about changing tastes as it is about increased familiarity and a resetting of expectations.

If you look at how humans navigate new environments, you’ll notice some striking similarities. When we encounter a new landscape, we go through three phases of way finding. We begin with relying on landmarks. These are the “highest ground” in a new, unfamiliar landscape and we navigate relative to them. They become our reference points and we don’t stray far from them. Facebook is, you guessed it, a landmark.

The next phase is called “Route Knowledge.” Here, we memorize the routes we use to get from landmark to landmark. We become to recognize the paths we take all the time. In the world of online landscapes, you could substitute the word “app” for “route.” Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and the rest are routes we use to get where we need to go quickly and easily. They’re our virtual “short cuts.”

The last stage of way finding is “Survey Knowledge.”  Here, we are familiar enough with a landscape that we’ve acquired a mental “map” of it and can mentally calculate alternative routes to get to our destination. This is how you navigate in your hometown.

What’s happening to Facebook is not so much that our tastes are swinging. It’s just that we’re confident enough in our routes/apps that we’re no longer solely reliant on landmarks.  We know what we want to do and we know the right tool to use. The next stage of wayfinding, Survey Knowledge, will require some help, however. I’ve talked in the past about the eventual emergence of meta-apps. These will sit between us and the dynamic universe of tools available. They may be largely or even completely transparent to us. What they will do is learn about us and our requirements while maintaining an inventory of all the apps at our disposal. Then, as our needs arise, it will serve up the right app for the job. These meta-apps will maintain our survey knowledge for us, keeping a virtual map of the online landscape to allow us to navigate at will.

As Facebook tries to gobble up the Instagrams and Snapchats of the world, they’re trying to become both a landmark and a meta-app. Will they succeed? I have my thoughts, but those will have to wait until a future column.

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