MySpace, the Tragedy of the Commons, and Facebook’s Future

As MySpace descends from leader of social networking to being part of an advertising network, it sparked a question in my mind….

Could something similar happen to Facebook?  Does social media create short term networks which erode, and what causes their erosion?

This sparked a great discussion on Facebook, and Paul Lemberg referenced an older, seminal article about the Tragedy of the Commons which just opened my eyes to part of what may be going on…

“The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.” Wikipedia

Let me share some thoughts before I dive into the 3 factors that may/may not cause the eventual demise of social networks:

The Downfall of MySpace:

Marketers, Advertising, and Users

MySpace’s initial growth began with musicians and a geographic focus on specific physical regions that grew with common interest. So LA and even Hawaii brought a sense of community and focus, and growth, which fueled something interesting, intimate, and unusual.

With growth comes the need to monetize, and leads to the challenges that came with MySpace’s rather exploitable interface. Adding friends was first a goal of users, but then marketers saw easy ways to exploit this, build email lists, and spam like crazy within the network.

Over time, those initial users who’s shared physical location and interests fueled growth became overwhelmed by all these users from many different areas, with a variety of interests.

Simply put, the content by users becomes average, you don’t know if your friends are marketers or if marketers are your friends, and soon MySpace was acquired and that inevitable solution for sites with many visitors came…

Let’s sell advertising and change the user interface; what was once a clean and intriguing UI became muddled with ads that had little relevance to the user.

This ties into the Tragedy of the Commons theme; marketers have self interest, MySpace has self interest to sell ads, and users self interest leads them into directions where what was once a community seems like a place to get spammed, brag about yourself, and just another advertising medium.

And the funny thing is, the advertisers soon found that what users were posting on MySpace was not suitable for their ads, and the results were average.

Is this mediocrity inevitable, even for Facebook?

Marketers Attack: Social Media’s Connections Are Too Alluring

Once a social network starts growing, the Viking marketers come in, drooling to pillage and plunder any space that contains users who are gullible, willing to be tricked, and easy to reach.

MySpace’s friends soon became a list builders dream, with connections easily exploitable. Soon fake friends and marketing plans hidden as another MySpace user crept up and spread, making the users wary.

Is this a friend or a marketer? Does everything successful online, from email to social networks, eventually become attacked and polluted by marketers who exploit and leave a mess?

The self interest of marketers is to make money, and the rules of a social network are nice, but tough to enforce. When a common space arises and gets popular, it’s just a matter of time before automated bots and marketing tricks come into play, making users wary of who is real and who is not.

Facebook is facing this more and more each day, despite somewhat more stringent rules, limiting the amount of friends (though not limited on Pages), and trying to prevent the marketers from taking over.

Yet day after day, the messages a user gets on Facebook resemble what happened to MySpace. When there’s more marketing messages then real personal interaction, interest wanes, and only those who want to popularize themselves rise to the top.

Advertising Models Don’t Work

and Decrease Value

One of the keys to MySpace’s downfall came with its acquisition and focus on advertising instead of the user. The UI of MySpace became filled with ads, just like any other portal.

What seemed special and interesting became cluttered with random ads, undermining the personal interactions. It’s clear that the UI was one of the victims in this drive to growth and monetization.

Even trickier was the fact that the self interest of advertisers, to reach targeted customers in ad space that was suitable for their brand, soon found a mish mash of nude pics, foul language, and the mediocrity of the masses doing whatever they want to do…

Mix that with the self interest of MySpace to monetize and you find another example of the Tragedy of the Commons; people who want to monetize a social space look to ads, ads don’t really work effectively in social media, and soon it becomes like billboards surrounding a personal conversation.

Facebook is limiting ads, likely because they have low clickthroughs and little response. They are also working on major brands and have so far kept their UI focused on the user, connections, and communications.

It will be interesting to see how Facebook’s self interest impacts the overall direction of the business, as making more and more money becomes important.

Advertising in social media is like putting too many cattle on a pasture to graze; eventually they eat all the grass and there’s nothing left to eat, to thrive on, and what’s left is barren. Will Facebook face the same end?

Users Updates Are Uncontrollable

and Often Diary Diarrhea

The real key to a social network are the users, the tools to connect them, and the content they share. In the early days of MySpace, you had many creative people and musicians drawing in clusters of people.

On Facebook, it started with college friendships and ironically is becoming more a place for the Baby Boomers to connect as well, much to the chagrin of Gen Y and others who use social media much more intuitively, almost as a second nature.

Yet the problem with a free space to say what’s on your mind is the same challenge facing Twitter and others; most of us don’t have interesting things to share every day, and about 10% of users provide most of the content, updates, and interactions.

These ten percent love to share everything, often personal, which over time starts to look like a diary gone mad, with posts about mundane matters, food, and the inevitable “this is what I’m doing right now” malaise that grows weary after a while.

Part of the tragedy of the social media commons is a few dominate and simply share what’s on their minds, with little time or focus on creating great content. It’s simply a diary on steroids.

This mediocrity of content also affects advertisers, brands who need to control the association of their ads with content. This is virtually impossible to do in social media, because the content just rolls out unguided, streaming, and volatile, without much editing or forethought.

While Facebook is doing an admirable job managing this, I’m starting to see more and more messages simply from marketers, less updates that are relevant and interesting, and even though it’s cool to connect with old friends, college buddies, and childhood memories, after a while you realize why you lost touch…because in life, you move on, and memories are really nice but they are just that, memories of the past that are not that important to the present.

Are the various self interests involved in social media invoke the Tragedy of the Commons? Are all social networks subjected to these short term life spans, or can something lasting be created?

It seems like Facebook is the leader now, but just a few years ago MySpace held that title; just look at the film Funny People and see how outdated the MySpace promo looks, even upon it’s release.

Is social media going to be constantly eroded by the Tragedy of the Commons? What do you think?

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