Are Social Media Sites Ignoring Their Users?

Around 18 months ago, I wrote a piece entitled ‘The Great Social Media Bubble‘ that talked about how social media businesses, not their offerings, were overvalued.

Since then, we’ve seen Facebook wiped off 50% of its IPO value, Zynga struggle and Twitter and LinkedIn battle to find significant revenue streams.

What this has led to is all the social platforms attempting to find new ways to boost revenues. Facebook’s promoted posts and mobile ads, Twitter’s sponsored tweets, the list goes on.

However, up until now this has mainly been an increase in the proliferation of ads, an understandable move considering we get to use their products for free and something that most users have come to expect.

Over the last few months, however, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend amongst many social media platforms with some of the changes they’ve been making to their products above and beyond simply adding more ads.

Many of these changes, or “improvements,” have been at odds with what users have actually been asking for, and, are actually damaging the user experience in the quest for revenues.

The updates to Instagram’s terms of use is perhaps the most public of these changes in recent times but isn’t actually the most surprising.

Instagram’s other recent decision, to stop photo previews appearing in Twitter feeds, is possibly more damaging to its long-term¬†user base.¬†Twitter was where Instagram made its name and ignoring those users is likely to lead to significant drop-off.

Also take Facebook, which responded to the threat of Google+’s circles feature by rolling out “lists,” including some default lists like ‘Close Friends’ and ‘Acquaintances.’

What I’ve begun to notice in recent times is that even though some people have been added to my ‘Close Friends’ list, their updates aren’t showing up in the news feed, despite getting the notification alert.

In short, it appears Facebook’s news feed algorithm is overruling my (the user’s) preferences over what info they want to see.

What was interesting was that when using an aggregation tool such as Flipboard, all the updates were visible again.

Just this week LinkedIn removed some of the filtering options for a user’s stream (like filtering by coworkers – EDIT: this has now been reversed), meaning what shows is left to LinkedIn’s news algorithm, further taking control away from the user.

What all of these changes have in common is that they are designed to increase ad revenues by making ads more prominent, by rendering unpaid content harder to find or by driving users toward a path that forces them to use the service in a way they’d prefer not to.

Whilst these current changes may seem small, they represent the first steps away from what users want in their social media product, a dangerous trend for any business.

At the moment, only one social network appears to be going the other way, Google+, which is constantly rolling out new features.

The beauty of the Google+ model is that they won’t have to put ads on that network if they don’t want to (as a side note I think they eventually will). They make their revenues by targeting advertising to your interests across all their other platforms. Google+ can simply act as the means to gather that info.

The question becomes, if social media sites continue to make changes that users don’t want, how long can they expect to maintain their user base before another alternative takes them away?

Craig Somerville is a Director at Reload Media, having worked extensively on the digital and online strategies of leading companies within Australia and around the world. With a background in marketing and economics, Craig's unique experience offers great insight into how the world of search and online marketing is changing in today's rapid marketplace. He is also a Google AdWords Qualified Professional and regularly consults on all aspects of digital marketing including search engine optimisation (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM) and social media.