One of the great promises of the social media era was that it would offer the unempowered a megaphone to the world. Suddenly anyone anywhere in the world would be on equal communicative footing with the most powerful and moneyed elite, shining a global spotlight on inequality and toppling repressive regimes with a single post. Yet, that vision appears to be quickly fading. Instead it is the other promise of social media, of connecting people through private (and increasingly ephemeral) conversations that is dominating the social revolution. As social media is spreading like wildfire across the world, it is less and less a megaphone and more and more a private club where members gather in a myriad private rooms. Instead of shouting to the world, people are increasingly whispering in small groups amongst themselves. These private conversations, by virtue of being shared only with friends/followers, are not accessible via the APIs, firehoses and other interfaces powering the data mining tools of social media analytics, meaning that social media is slowly being walled off from access and in the not too distant future social media analytics in its current form might even come to an end.
It is no accident that nearly every social media analytics platform today incorporates Twitter. From its inception, Twitter has viewed itself as the plumbing of the social internet, providing what amounts to a cloud publishing platform designed for pouring hundreds of millions of messages in and distributing them through billions of endpoints across the web. In short, Twitter envisioned itself as a pub/sub platform on a societal scale. The platform’s user experience was built from the ground up around the idea of broadcasting to the world, with posts defaulting to public access and a time-based display modality that ensured that every tweet, no matter who posted it, was equally visible in searches. Anyone anywhere can browse and search Twitter right from its homepage without ever having to sign up for an account. It even launched a machine friendly firehose of all of those posts early in its existence to maximize the accessibility of its platform to data miners. This coupling of everything-is-public communication and machine friendly firehose access has made Twitter the go-to platform for mining public conversation.
In stark contrast, Facebook has evolved as a walled garden, a parallel closed Internet under the exclusive jurisdiction and control of a single company. In the place of Twitter’s open browse/search homepage, Facebook’s homepage offers only a login screen requiring a user to create a new account in order to become a member of its community, with strict rules about anonymity and alternative identities. In order to access the majority of posts on Facebook, one must sign up for an account and agree to Facebook’s rules of its version of the internet. A majority of the site’s content is private, posted with strict access controls making it accessible only to friends/followers. Whereas a tweet is shared with the world by default, a Facebook post is shared only with friends. Even if Facebook were to eventually offer a firehose of all public posts similar to Twitter, the default private nature of the platform means that the majority of the conversation happening on Facebook would not be included in the firehose and thus will be out of reach for public data mining.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that private Facebook data is not being data mined – in reality it is being used to power everything from advertisements to news feeds to active manipulation of users’ emotions. The difference is that only Facebook itself can conduct societal-scale research using its data, such as how parents and children interact or how women communicate online or how emotion spreads. In short, while Twitter emphasizes public openness and global accessibility, Facebook emphasizes perceived privacy, even while content is still actively data mined, but just by Facebook.
While it is an open question as to whether social media actually reflects reality and it has critical blind spots outside the West, one thing that is certain is that public broadcast social media is stagnating. In terms of post volume, number of users posting content and geographic footprint, broadcast platforms like Twitter are stalled, while platforms where messages default to private like Facebook are experiencing sustained growth and achieving a much broader footprint.
Whereas Twitter’s homepage and embeddable widgets allow anyone to browse and search any of the half billion posts crossing its platform each day, Facebook and other platforms require creating an account and logging in before consuming the majority of their content. In this way, social media platforms are increasingly taking the form of private walled gardens where most communications are private, meaning they are inaccessible to the cottage industry of social media analytics companies that have come to dominate the social landscape.
Putting this all together, the future does not look bright for social media analytics. Even as social media spreads rapidly across the world and gives voice to the most remote cultures and geographies, those voices are taking the form of whispers behind closed doors rather than global broadcasts through megaphones. As shouts become whispers, the firehose of public social conversations that has powered the social media analytics landscape is drying up. In a world where social media means private conversations among friends rather than announcements to the world, there isn’t much data for outside social data miners to analyze. Much like the big data revolution itself, even as we are being flooded with an ever-greater world of data, in many ways we are able to see less than we ever have.
This article was written by Kalev Leetaru from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.