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The day Social Media died

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We’re interviewing Dr. Marvin Wankman, a Ph.D specialist in media history at Harvard University, about the demise of social media and why all the predictions about its rise were wrong. Welcome Dr. Wankman.

Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Let me start by reading you a few things that were written in the media about social media in the year 2009. From TIME Magazine: “Social media takes over the world.” From The New York Times: “Soon, we’ll all be tweeting 24/7/365.” From The Economist: “It’s a social media world and we all just live in it.” From Wired Magazine: “There is no doubt that social media will revolutionize the way humans communicate with each other.” Now here we are in the year 2017 and the social media landscape is a shambles. What happened?

Well, it was just another case of media hype. After Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were in great uncertainty. Couple that with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, the election of Barack Obama, and the difficulties of traditional media, and people were in an apocalyptic state of mind.  It seemed that the world as we had always known it was changing fast. So with the boom of social media, it was natural for people to think it represented some major new paradigm in human development. But, of course, it didn’t. It was just another bubble.

Didn’t anybody at the time point out that social media was not as revolutionary as everyone said it was?

A few people, here and there. But by and large, their viewpoints were swept away by the avalanche of media coverage that insisted social media was the wave of the future.

What was the turning point for social media, the point at which things began falling apart?

There were many and they were incremental. One of the first was in mid-2009, when reports surfaced that people were leaving Twitter faster than they were joining it. Another early warning was when Baby Boomers took over Facebook, which drove the Millennials away from it, toward a chaotic mix of bizarre alternatives that splintered the community and further confused it. And certainly, in 2010, when Nabisco bought Facebook, that generated a lot of hostility. And it didn’t help when, that same year, Gary Vaynerchuk announced he was quitting all web activity on being hired as the new host of American Idol, after Ryan Seacrest was killed in that freak balloon accident. But I think the real turning point was more subtle. It was when people starting realizing that spending all their free time on social media was boring and non-productive.

There was also a psychological aspect. Remember that case in 2011, when a woman in Omaha sought coverage from her HMO for addiction to Twitter? Saturday Night Live had that Tina Fey parody where she was “twaddicted to twack.” Twitter became a laughingstock. Suddenly, it wasn’t cool to be pecking away on your iPhone all day and night, it was seen as a form of deviancy. Human beings realized that actual speaking — talking to the person next to you — is better than obsessively sending off vapid messages into the ether. Young people began re-engaging with one another. As more and more people distanced themselves from social media, the only ones still using it were the elderly. (It was no coincidence when the AARP declared 2011 “The Year of Social Media.”) The crowning point — the coup de grace — was that episode of The Simpsons in 2012, where Grandpa Simpson was trying to text message, and Bart and Lisa were gagging because it was so uncool.

In retrospect, what lessons can be learned from the demise of social media?

Well, in view of the fact that Twitter went bankrupt in 2013 and wiped out $40 billion in stock value, one lesson would be to be careful where you invest your money! Another is to be wary of anything you hear in the media — especially when it’s the media talking about itself to itself. But probably the ultimate lesson is an optimistic one: when all is said and done, humans are social creatures who like to associate with each other. Social media was too divisive. Rather than allowing us to come together, it pushed us apart. It was an ersatz community, a Potemkin Village of virtual, not real,  relationships. A reaction was bound to set in.

Thank you very much, Dr. Wankman. It’s been fun.

Yes, it was. Thank you.

  1. Dr. Wankman seems wise.

  2. I wonder if Dr. Wankman is British? Most Wankmen are.

    Or is there a deeper, hidden message here? Does the good doctor’s name suggest that we are all wankmen when we use Twitter? And in that case, would we not be “twankmen”?

  3. Charlie there is always a deeper hidden meaning.

  4. Very droll.

    In other news, the NY Times just laid off 150 reporters and Bill Keller called in sick. Sent a memo. How’s that for “talking to the person next to you”!

    I’ll keep my Twitter ’till the next new shiny comes along. :-p

  5. Steve….Gary as the new host for American Idol? .. that should crank it up a notch! :-) Just wondered if this line of thought is similar to those that suggest raising taxes and prices while reducing glass size will rid the world of drunk drivers and street violence?

  6. Oded Shakked says:

    I was once accused for being a bit of a philosopher (Best job in the world: get up in the morning, think a thought or two and relax for the rest of the day). The dear Wankman is right on most of his analysis but he failed to mention that when twitter lost $40 billion in 2013 it was mostly because when wireless computer chips started to get implanted in humans in 2012(eliminating the need for keboards and screens) folk began to just stay home and have a complete imaginary life, with imaginary friends and imaginary guitar solos (listen to Frank Zappa’s ‘Joes Garage’ and you’ll know what I mean).

  7. I think the importance of social media and the Internet is that it has forced the big boys to distribute their content Online.

    Now I can choose between watching WLTV or Saturday Night Live on HULU. It wasn’t like that a little while ago. This is going to make it tougher for video bloggers to rise like Vaynerchuk did. Now, you’re competing with the pros.

  8. Rusty Eddy says:

    I think the deeper hidden meaning is that Steve harbors a secret desire to write the Great American Novel.

  9. But Oded, did they drink imaginary wine?

  10. Some things are great inventions and either make life easier or more fun. But regardless, those things too can soon fade away – think about it… what ever happened to the Fanny Pack?! Easy to use, incredibly convenient, and dare I say… a fashion accessory! It was even the progression of the manbag.

    I see a pattern forming (see if this rings a bell).
    - You join Facebook because you hear about it repeatedly.
    - You find old high school friends and try to “friend” everyone you can think of.
    - You participate actively for about 3 weeks and then realize you don’t have that much in common with everyone anymore or you don’t care about who is eating what ehen and where every 10 minutes.
    - You soon fade away from even looking at your account.

    Sound familiar?

  11. “It was an ersatz community, a Potemkin Village of virtual, not real, relationships. A reaction was bound to set in.”

    Flash: The reaction was virtual, all is back to relationships unconsummated…

  12. Just thought I would add that this blog post was written by someone who isn’t of the Millennial generation. Of course, neither was this comment. Just sayin’.

  13. Social media is just going to continue to grow. I had an interview with Chris Riccobono from http://pardonthatvine.com/ it is unbeleivable the amount of followers he has in such a short time just because of his unique way of leveraging social media. However bottom lime the content has to be great.

  14. Interesting perspective! I would suggest a book entitled “Trust Agents” as a counter point.

    Social media is about so much more than Facebook and Twitter, it is about how we interact with brands, consume media, and keep in with each other. It will never replace true face to face communication or REAL relationships, however it will allow us to form more relationships with like minded people and not be limited by geography or physical confines.

    PS I really enjoyed Dr. Marvin Wankman previous interview about how the horseless buggy would never replace the the horse drawn buggy. Or how wireless communication was just a fad doomed to fail and that true communication only happens via land line.

    Cheers and thanks for the humorous perspective!

  15. Oh how I’ve come to hate the word “leveraging.” We used to use the word to describe what we had to do with the tractor when in glided into a ditch near the vineyard. You know, get some leverage to push the big sucker out of there. Never dreamed it would one day be the buzz word for bedazzling the public to come your way.

  16. ChrisoO, Dr. Wankman, who is also an M.D., correctly predicted that the vermiforn appendix would eventually become a vestigial organ. Previously, it was believed to be the seat of human intelligence.

  17. Of course, all of this will come to change when Twitter realizes its revenue model is to create cars fueled only by their owner’s Tweets.

  18. as opposed to Tweets fueled by gas!

  19. I don’t buy it and have a similar reaction to the one I had when I reviewed the recent Citibank social media survey (http://bit.ly/42DRWz). Wankman is partially right in that he says that social media doesn’t change fundamental human behaviors. Where he is completely wrong is that social media IS exactly about natural human behaviors.

    Take away all of the technology (which will come and go) it’s easier to see social media for what it is – conversations between people.

    People love to connect and the technology of social media essentially amplifies and extends conversations that would otherwise be a bit buried in offline connections.

    I’m sorry Dr. Wankman, but social media is here to stay.

  20. “People love to connect and the technology of social media essentially amplifies and extends conversations that would otherwise be a bit buried in offline connections.”

    Alex, if people love to connect, then why are they willing to pare down their conversation to 140 inane keystrokes?

    Seems to me that so-called social media is removing the social in interactions but hyping it at the same time.

  21. Thomas, I think you misunderstood my point and also perhaps haven’t grasped the role that micro-blogging plays in “conversations”. My point was that the tools and technologies are not the thing to focus on as Wankman did…they simply facilitate and amplify all sorts of conversations between people. I’ve posted quite a bit about this topic (e.g. http://bit.ly/pm6lG and http://bit.ly/14DMhC).

    In terms of not quite “getting” Twitter, you’re not alone in that, so I posted one of the “Twitter in Plain English” tools that I’ve found useful here – http://bit.ly/1m5lwA.

    Hope this helps to at least clarify my perspective.

  22. Me thinks Dr. Marvin Wankman is somehow related to the late Dr. Vinnie Boom Baa, Rodney Dangerfield’s personal doctor.
    Wink, wink!

  23. So, Dr. Wankman, tell us how you relieve stress…

  24. It does clarify your perspective, Alex, but it doesn’t change my view that social interaction is not fostered by removing personal contact and by paring interaction to the bare, syllables of a language. That kind of stuff promotes short attention spans, inability to understand communications, and overall multi-tasking culture that has tasks vying for attention with real personal contact.

  25. Hi Steve,

    Congratulations on a solid blog with well written ideas. I read your work because it matters to me. With that said let’s examine what’s going on here. As a blogger with an audience, I am sure you don’t want social media to go away. Blogging was the cornerstone and beginning of social media and the paradigm shift that is Web 2.0.

    I am very happy and excited that I have the opportunity to publish my own information, own it, and distribute it. Now that information is being democratized by bloggers and content contributors on social networks, the traditional mass media is quickly attempting to reinvent itself.

    Social media by name may die but the concept of Web 2.0 has changed the landscape forever in favor of the one off entrepreneur.

    You don’t have to embrace it but you must be enjoying it or you would not write this blog. Keep the pen humming!

  26. Dr. Wankman reminds me of my boyfriend’s parents who, in 1996, kindly explained to me how “the internet” is just like CB radio — a fad that will die out as quickly as it came in. Visionaries, all.

  27. Dean, I sure don’t want social media to go away and regardless of what I want or don’t want, social media isn’t going away! That’s why I wrote yesterday’s blog in parody format instead of straight analysis and prediction. I just wanted to have some fun, and to point out some of the crazier aspects of our current obsession with social media. Thanks for your kind words about my blog.

  28. Kristy,

    Nothing changes. The generation that Steve and I are in used to say, “never trust anyone over 30.”

    Also, ours was called the “me generation,” for its hedonistic pleasure seeking.
    Today, I wonder if anyone has done a study to place which pronoun is more widely used on Facebook, Twitter, et al.

    Surely, the Internet is not a fad, but its direction raises the question: is it living up to its expectation as a revolutionary information tool or has it become one massive leveraging, networking, 24/7 marketing, selling, and branding tool–for the new me generation?

    When television first hit the airwaves it was billed as the revolutionary information tool. Look at what that medium has become.

    Just something to think about.

  29. I have been thinking about this Dr. Wankman. He has had some bad times, but think back. This is the guy who said that the hula hoop would go away. This was the guy who predicted that the Edsel would be an “Edsel”. He was the first guy to predict that rumble seats would give way to inside back seats because who wanted to make out in public. He was the first to predict that throwing tea in the harbor in Boston would lead eventually to maniacs throwing fits at public meetings.

    So, folks, when you assail Dr. Wankman, you are assailing a genius who understands that 140 key strokes is not “communication” and does not a village make. He remembers the Pony Express. It may be gone, but people do still write long treatises to each other.

    I get about 500 tweets a day from my legion of followers. I don’t know why they follow me because I keep posting real information about wine and keep getting back retweets of someone else’s tweet or some drunk telling me that she is going to open another bottle of plonk.

    The Internet has created real communities of interest. They have existed from the beginning on discussion boards, continue there today on WCWN and WLDG. They exist here on Steve’s blog and Dr. Vino’s blog and Tom Warks’ blog. And what gets posted here and in those other places is real conversation. I don’t see depth or complexity or emotion on Twitter.

    It would have been a great medium for teenagers, but texting, sexting and whatever other ‘tings they do there are way ahead of Twitter. At least those activities are real communication.

  30. Charlie, many people are unaware that Dr. Wankman helped Al Gore invent the Internet!

  31. @Thomas Pellechia:

    I appreciate your response and understand your questions.

    Personally, I think that the internet is unique (at least compared to print and television) in that it has the ability to sustain all the marketing-branding-networking blahbitty blah AND still provide a platform for personal, intimate communications at the same time. TV can’t do that.

    The internet is the only medium that provides bottom-up content (versus top-down editorial/content, which is all that tv and print can provide). Which I think will always make it revolutionary — even if the content that MOST people choose to post is silly and/or self-serving. :)

  32. Perhaps, Kristy, but that assumes that people will be able to determine the differences among information, disinformation, opinion, and marketing. The lines are continually blurring, which is another function of bottom-up content.

    When no one is in charge, no one is accountable therefore, few should be trusted.

  33. LOLLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL

    Steve, hats off to you for a truly fabulously entertaining post (and I really do mean it, as I almost never put adverbs on top of adverbs). But I have to say I back up what Alex Hawkinson said: social media is just another way for humans to connect, and they’re going to keep right on doing it. I recall reading somewhere, as well, that Millennials – esp the super young ones – have been documented as having better offline social skills than their predecessors, so…

    It’s here to stay. Whether we abandon Twitter or not is anyone’s call. Or should I say Tweet?

    CC

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