Social Media is a Lie

by Michael Szul on

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I'm reading Coders by Clive Thompson, which acts as both a history of computer science, but also an examination of the behavioral elements of programmers, programs, and users. There are some interesting interviews in the book that talk about the effect that software has on human behavior and psychology, especially in relation to "social" media.

A long time ago—or at least what seems like a long time—Douglas Rushkoff gave a talk for The Disinformation Company, and remarked how the Internet was supposed to be a communication revolution, but was quickly rebranded as an information revolutions. Attempting to read the corporatist underpinnings, Rushkoff noted how communication in the sense of what one person communicates to another is free, but information can be commoditized, packaged, and sold. It's a flawed though interesting distinction, and one that drives home how technology can be altered or rebranded for maximum commercial gain.

When LiveJournal, Friendster, and MySpace were evolving, the term most often used was "social network." Even the movie about Facebook used that term. These web applications were communication platforms meant to connect people together, and they were soon followed by applications like Twitter and Instagram. Somewhere along the line though, the term shifted from social network to social media, and it likely happened around the same time that SEO and SEM professionals realized they could use these platforms to effectively market products. In order to make money, the platforms themselves embraced the marketers, and created ad platforms, adjusting user feeds and algorithms to increase engagement.

But as these platforms continued to grow, and eventually declared their individual IPOs, that stakeholder desire for growth outweighed any desire of the company to provide value. Communication was second to visual engagement with products and services, and in the attention economy, manipulation of behavior to increase attention outweighed all others. Notifications, check-ins, device vibrations, email reminders… anything that can be used for retention will be.

It wasn't long ago (maybe a few years) that Facebook changed how Facebook Pages displayed in the feeds of those who "Liked" the page. Gone was the algorithm pushing appropriate content based on activity. Instead, Page activity for business was essentially demoted—limited in viewership—unless you wanted to fork over some cash to "promote" your post. This caused a lot of consternation from small business owners who couldn't afford such campaigns.

Social "media" wants your attention like any other media company, and both Twitter and Facebook find ways to keep you on their site rather than allow you to click-through to another application or web site. They even built their own in-line browsers, so even if you want to read an article, it's minimal effort to return to those holding you captive.

Here's the thing: Social media companies would have you believe that they hold the keys to communication, networking, and content, and that as a content producer, writer, or just a person who wants to share a few things with some friends, you need to use them to thrive.

But you don't… It's all a lie.

I say that rather brashly, but we're all led to believe that social media is the hub of modern communication and content publishing and distribution. This is far from the case.

For example, look at our web site: Codepunk. It's been around for 5 years, and we've been rather consistent with our LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook presence. Despite that, here's a breakdown of our acquisition statistics:

Organic Search: 92.5%
Direct: 5.6%
Referral: 1%
Social: 0.6%

By far, most of the traffic that comes to our web site is from organic search. We write content that people want to read, and they find it via a search engine. Social media only accounts for about half a percent of traffic. We could eliminate our social media accounts altogether without making a dent in traffic. In fact, out of the social category, here's the breakdown:

YouTube: 71.1%
Twitter: 13.2%
Facebook: 13.2%
Pocket: 2.6%
LinkedIn: 0.0%

These numbers are slightly deceiving because they fluctuate month-to-month, and these are the percentages for a specific period of time. LinkedIn for the last 365 days accounts to about 7% of social traffic overall, and is just showing under 0.5% in the time period above. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Reddit (not shown) actually trade places quite often depending on the articles published. For example, if we write a few business or DevOps-oriented articles, LinkedIn spikes. What's important to note though, is that out of 0.6% of overall traffic, the vast majority of this social category consistently comes from YouTube where we post tutorial videos (more content) that have links in the descriptions. How do people use YouTube? They search.

This is why Google is still so dominate: Search is still the primary driver of engagement, let alone traffic. The focusmand the dollar spends might be on social media, but it's currently a facade.

This isn't to say we don't get social media engagement. We do. We get plenty of likes, shares, retweets, responses, comments, etc., but the key is that people are looking at the image, and reading the headline and summary, but aren't actually exiting their social media platform to read the full details. They're remaining a captured audience just like social media companies intend, and it comes at the expense of real engagement.