Social media lights and shadows

To put social media[1] in a realistic perspective, it is useful to consider not only the extent of their success, but also their number and variety. Wikipedia lists 198 of the main and most popular social media worldwide, [2] classified in different ways: by category (magazines, Internet forums, weblogs, or blogs, social blogs[3], microblogging (Twitter is the most famous), wikis, social networks, podcast for audio and video files, photos or pictures, videos, rating and social bookmarking), by country (the most famous cases are those of the Chinese Qzone and Sina Weibo, fourth and fifth respectively in the social network ranking in 2012[4] with 480 and 300 million users, or Russia’s VKontakte, with 123 million users), by content (CafeMomis dedicated to mothers, deviantART to artistic community, to baby boomers and so on) and in many other ways.

A world so immense and diverse, yet one characterised by a common trait: all these platforms belong to for-profit organisations that collect personal information from their users and store them within proprietary databases, which differ from each other and are not accessible to the public. This approach, which has little to do with the original ‘open standard’ setting underlined by Berners Lee in his article in Scientific American[5], has given birth to strange trades, paradoxical lawsuits and ruthless forms of competition.
Example 1: how to buy fake links for FB and fake followers for Twitter

Do you want to increase the number of your ‘followers’ on a social network? Nothing could be easier: just call up one of the specialist sites[6] on the web and, with a handful of dollars, you can buy thousands of followers to lend credibility and prestige to your social space. As documented in the article by Luca Savioli[7], trade in this particular commodity is thriving and has raised more than a doubt about the credibility of the small numbers that appear in the pages of social media. Never mind if someone decides to emphasise his or her popularity on FB, but if the suspicion of undue trades creeps into election campaigns it becomes much more unpleasant and potentially capable of distorting the delicate process of consensus building. Recently, a similar shadow[8] has been cast over Silvio Berlusconi’s electoral campaign and we can be sure that cases of this kind, perhaps with different protagonists, will still make the headlines. Just imagine some zealous supporter buying ‘followers’ to improve the credibility of the candidate or some antagonist who creates false evidence to discredit the opposition party.
Example 2: Meteors: the parable of social media.

The site still exists, access is (now) free but does anyone talk about Second Life anymore? What was presented as the new frontier of the Internet a few years ago seems to have disappeared from the chronicles of Web 2.0. On the other hand, it is re-emerging in those about legal cases[9] since many inhabitants of the virtual world of Second Life have launched a class action against Linden Research, Inc. on the real meaning of virtual land ownership. In practice they complain of having been cheated by false promises of ownership of virtual land for which they have not received any compensation, after Linden unilaterally closed their accounts. With cynical sense Linden points out that, at the end of the day, Second Life is just a computer game. Doesn’t it sound like a Kafka story?

But there are those who are likely to come off worse: according to PrivCo, a business intelligence firm that collects, analyses (and sells) the financial data of other private companies, the social media Foursquare, based on geolocation voluntary users, is likely to go under by the end of the year. [10] But, as noted by Maria Strada in the tech blog on the Corriere della Sera website,[11] “… the report made by Nielsen in early December puts Forsquare in third place – in America alone – for users and for minutes of connection.” Who is right? Hard to say but it looks certain that the struggle for survival between these titans of someone else’s business really will see them stop at nothing. Some disappear from the scene … but sometimes they come back. This is what is happening to some former stars on the social scene: MySpace (music), Flickr (photo) and Delicious (bookmarks) have decided to join forces and make a comeback in order to stand up to superpowers Facebook and Twitter. [12]

Meanwhile, the struggle for supremacy among social media continues with no holds barred. Facebook is preparing to release Graph Search, the proprietary search engine which uses as its source all the items posted by the users indexed with a tool called Unicorn, able to retrieve information from the experiences described in social networks. The searches show the results and compare them in real time with those of Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. [13] All this, despite the assurances of Zuckerberg,[14] without much regard for those who want information concerning themselves to sink into oblivion. Graph Search brings up old comments, photos and videos that you would perhaps want to remain a thing of the past rather than resurface years later and outside the context in which they originated. In addition, users cannot opt out of the new function, which allows you to exclude yourself from searches. [15],[16] In practice, it is unlikely that we will have greater control over the information entered into the FB database. So much for privacy.
Example 3: 2013: Escape from Facebook

The news has shaken the net and a number of certainties: teenagers are turning their backs on Facebook. A recent survey conducted by Piper Jeffrey[17] has shown that the 5,200 American adolescents surveyed are increasingly turning to Twitter as a social media reference: 30% of them indicated it was the most important, while 33% indicated Facebook. It would almost be a draw except that six months previously, the contest ended with 42% of the vote versus 27% for FB and Twitter respectively. Further confirmation of this trend comes from the Socialbakers[18] data,  according to which there has recently been a drop in users, especially in English-speaking countries (USA, UK, Canada, Australia etc.) Germany and France, offset by a significant increase in Brazil, India, Mexico, the Far East and … Italy. Blogger and journalist for the Corriere della Sera Matteo Bianconi[19] wickedly wonders whether this is the cause behind Mark Zuckerberg’s growing interest in politics.

In fact, some cracks in the social media giant are starting to become visible: the site[20] has launched an interesting debate in which it indicates that the abrupt transition to the Timeline configuration (the story of your life, according to said FB), which is able to disclose all previous user interactions, is considered by many as “a somewhat surprising and arrogant move.” [21] It is followed by a list of rather unpleasant issues concerning ‘limitations’ associated with the no. 1 social website, casting a shadow on its future.

A look at the phenomenon from the investor’s point of view comes from Terry Corbell who notes that because of the problems mentioned above, FB may have arrived at too late a stage of its lifecycle to allow the hope of raising an appreciable return on investment. [22]

As if that were not enough, the former co-worker of the king of social networks, David Morin, has begun to compete against it: his Path is gaining users at a rate of one million a week and it has even managed to beat FB by equipping its platform with a search engine that tracks the information posted by users. [23]  In short, even Zuckerberg’s creature seems to comply with the ruthless law of obsolescence which condemns the successes of the world-wide web in a brilliant yet brief parable. It’s better to burn out than it is to rust, [24] one could say with Neil Young. But we are left to wonder if Zuckerberg would agree.


[1] Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “…a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.”.  Kaplan AM, Haenlein M, (2010)., Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media, Business Horizons, Vol. 53, Issue 1, pg. 59-68.

[3] These are news aggregators: when a blogger enrolls his or her site on a social blog, it publishes the introduction of each new post and the link to the original site for the full article.

[24] Except from Hey hey, My my – Live Rust (1979) –