Why Social Networks are Prepping for a Cold War – And Users Will Feel the Sting
An article by HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes was recently featured in Business Insider. Take a look at the original version here.
On March 4, TweetDeck – a Twitter service for managing multiple social media accounts – quietly launched the latest salvo in the social media wars. Tucked into an otherwise unrelated announcement was a sentence warning that the service planned to “discontinue support” for their Facebook integration. Millions of TweetDeck users accustomed to accessing Facebook via the tool suddenly found themselves out of luck.
This isn’t the first time social media’s titans have butted heads recently. Rumblings began in July, shortly after Instagram was acquired by Facebook. First, Twitter disabled a feature that let Instagram users import followers automatically from Twitter. Instagram retaliated by cutting off the ability to share photos on Twitter. More recently, Facebook countered by blocking users of Twitter’s new Vine video-sharing service from accessing their Facebook friends list on the app.
The tit-for-tat extends to other networks, as well. Last year, Twitter removed a feature that allowed users to post tweets to LinkedIn, while also cutting off Google’s access to real-time search data. Meanwhile, Google has begun aggressively pushing its Google+ sign-ins on third-party sites as an alternative to the ubiquitous Facebook Connect.
For users who remember the not-too-distant days when Facebook, Twitter and other social networks played nice together – and content jumped effortlessly across platforms – recent rifts have been nothing short of maddening. “We simply want any app we use that is owned by either of you to interact seamlessly, the way they used to,” implores Mashable deputy editor Chris Taylor. “We’d just really like to see our Vine videos on Facebook and our Instagram snaps on Twitter.”
Sadly, this may be wishful thinking. Largely gone is the harmonious and open social ecosystem of yore. In its place: a balkanized social media landscape of splintered, siloed networks who just can’t seem to get along. For ordinary users and businesses, the prognosis isn’t good.
Why all the drama?
From a business perspective, the logic behind recent moves by Twitter, Facebook and the other networks isn’t hard to unravel. Under the prevailing tech paradigm, a social network’s first responsibility is growth: to amass as many users in as short a time as possible. Initially, being open with other networks – sharing users and data as part of a cooperative ecosystem – makes sense. (In practical terms, this is accomplished by having an open API, a public, accessible interface for letting outside sites tap into user and programming data.)
This cooperative model was exactly what Twitter (as well as Facebook, to a lesser extent) once espoused. Twitter founder Biz Stone, in fact, called his network’s open ecosystem “arguably the most important, or maybe even inarguably, the most important thing we’ve done.” But that was back in 2008. Eventually, money enters the picture. And money changes everything.
Social networks monetize, by and large, by selling ads – both traditional display ads and promoted tweets and posts that appear in users’ streams. At some point, it’s no longer in their interest to be sharing content and sending users to competitors’ sites. The goal instead becomes to funnel users and all of their valuable posts, photos and videos back to their respective services. More and better content translates to more users spending more time on site. And more eyeballs equal more ad dollars.
Hence, Twitter’s recent decision to tighten up its API, reining in outside developers and bringing users back to the site itself. Reflecting shifting sensibilities, newer networks like Instagram, Pinterest, Path, Vine and Google+ don’t even have true public APIs at all. Sharing has gone out of style.
While this may strictly speaking be good for business, it’s not always good for users. “[When] it comes to online social networks, the interests of the companies that run them do not always align (and may well conflict) with the interests of users,” notes The Economist. For most people and brands, being walled into one network – no matter how robust it is – is hardly ideal. Different platforms have different strengths, from career-building to cat-video-sharing, and reach different audiences.
A consumer company like Coca-Cola, for example, might leverage Twitter for breaking news, Facebook for fan giveaways, Instagram for photo campaigns and LinkedIn for recruiting. In a perfect social media universe, content would flow readily between these platforms, adapting to the demands of different formats while reinforcing one message. Yet as networks have battened down the hatches, this easy give and take has become harder and harder. From a communication standpoint, social media has taken a giant leap backward.
Social media Switzerlands
While this newly splintered social landscape has miffed casual users, for companies who have invested deeply in social media marketing it’s proving a serious liability.
With networks increasingly isolated, organizations are having to pour resources into bespoke strategies and content for each and every platform. Posts, photos and videos that once flowed easily across networks now need to be modified and uploaded on multiple sites. And with walls between platforms so high, it’s harder than ever for content to truly go viral and skip across the web.
As social networks have grown less user friendly, however, a parallel industry has flourished. Frustrated companies are increasingly turning to social media management systems, software tools that offer equal access to all the big networks from one interface (My company, HootSuite, is one of these). Switzerlands in an increasingly polarized social media world, these systems allow Twitter, Facebook and other social feeds to coexist side-by-side on one page, in perfect harmony.
The advantages are significant. Regardless of flare-ups between networks, for instance, users can still push out messages to Twitter and LinkedIn simultaneously or interact with pics on both Instagram and Twitter or just hop between platforms without headaches – kind of like in the good old days. Social media management systems enable engaging with the whole social media spectrum at once, often with backend analytics that show which networks generate the most interest and ROI for companies. In a balkanized social landscape, it will likely be neutral, third-party services like these that afford access to the widest possible audience – even as individual networks continue to circle the wagons.
The operative word here, however, is neutral. TweetDeck, among the better known social media management systems, is Twitter-owned. It’s recent decision to sever users’ Facebook access was, in many ways, inevitable. Another popular social media management system, Wildfire, was recently acquired by Google, leading some commentators to speculate that it’s only a matter of time before they find themselves cut off by Facebook (i.e. Google+’s main adversary). While increasingly hard to come by, independent social media management systems – which offer access to all networks but are beholden to none – are the safest bet for companies hoping to get the most out of social media investments.
With Twitter gearing up for a potential IPO and Facebook increasingly accountable to profit-driven shareholders, it’s looking less likely that social media’s two goliaths will be playing nice anytime soon. Newer networks still have an opportunity to reverse the trend, lower the drawbridges and create a more open, efficient web – to the benefit of consumers and businesses. In the meantime, however, as platforms dig in and tensions rise, the job of keeping the peace and helping users and companies bridge the gaps will fall more than ever to independent social media tools – the virtual UN of a fractious new social reality.