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At least Pinterest is doing well.

The Click Crisis: five theories

The crisis has been brewing for months, each week one or two more stories hit the press: users were turning away from social media, clicks were down. At first the stories made perfect sense, the HuffPo would lose clicks because they lacked content. Twitter would lose users because it is awful. Why would anyone use Twitter if they were not required to do so for their job? Now the contagion has spread to Instagram, and even Facebook. The networks are scrambling to find ways to get clicks up. So far the best answer has been to pivot to web video. The question: can everyone pivot to web video or is this just another listicle?

Here are five explanations for the click crisis, and why it will be persistent. Also, one that I have been mulling that suggests it could be cyclical.

  1. Privacy rules change — Social networks are now public, so disclosure rules have tightened up. Sandra Petronio has developed a wonderful approach, Communication Privacy Management Theory. Basically, this means you study the contextual rules that people use to manage the flow of information that they presume to own. At first people interacted with social networks using their rules for private spaces, then they became liminal spaces. Now people use public rules when communicating on social media. Once the privacy rules tighten up, they don’t loosen. The technology came, people participated, were burned by perceived rules violations, and they won’ trust again. Once bitten, twice shy. Users didn’t react by using advanced privacy settings, they just disengaged. As users disengage from sharing phatic moments (basic everyday communication) and positive stuff, the stuff retained becomes negative, even toxic.
  2. Negative affective cascade — everything is strategic and awful. Why would anyone want to be subjected to this? This is really easy: Twitter is awful and your Facebook friends don’t post anymore. If it doesn’t feel good, people won’t do it. The key isn’t to add more features for additional monetization, but to make it feel good again. Once it starts getting negative, it will just get more negative.
  3. Economic explanation, click culture was a mezzo level step — people always wanted full on web video and chat, not the click stream. Phones are really fast today, so are networks. The parties in the flagship wars (the race for the biggest and best lead phone) are in Wiley E. Coyote mode — they have already run off the cliff and are not looking down. The phone has passed the ideal level of performance and for all but the most intense users is totally adequate. Do you really want a high performance gaming co-processor in your 12-inch phone? What people want — to watch TV on the go. Phones can do this now. Why read a crappy listicle when you can watch Matlock? The television like social media of the first era could just as easily have been a television substitute, not an entirely new form of communication. Audience demand is now connected with what they actually wanted.
  4. Design explanation, task-affect matching slipped too far — Instagram is fun when it is a picture-driven Facebook, not fun when it is a tabloid. Task-affect matching is a phase I use to describe the relationship between the user experience task of a platform and the affective logic behind it. This is like a car transmission. Let me explain that metaphor. Traditional cars have an engine that burns gasoline and creates rotational energy, this energy is then transmitted to the wheels through a gear box, depending on how fast you want to go and what your traction is like, the transmission (and differentials and such) will do different things to convert engine power into motion. The affective heart of the network is the engine, it creates interest and intensity. The actual physical interface is the transmission. It coverts the power of the affect engine into something useful. Here is the rub: as the platforms add more features in an attempt to flank each other, they lose the tight matching between the affective core of the network and the user experience. When Facebook adds breaking news into your chat streams (as they are planning to soon in an attempt to end Twitter) they will change your experience of using the chat. Let me say again: when they add a new feature, it will change how you feel when you use the interface. Do you really want FB to ask if you want to hail a cab when you are talking with a friend? Do you want to be reminded of the fact that this is a corporate platform? No. You. Don’t. Facebook could easily break the transmission that has allowed the company to thrive. The more a company messes with the linkage between the user tasks and the affective driver of the network, the more likely they are to lose energy and even collapse the network. In some cases networks are trying to drive heavy designs and tasks with tiny affective engines. Ello has a really narrow appeal as folks might avoid advertising, with a terrible task profile. You can’t drive a pickup truck with a lawn mower engine. Most social network firms take for granted that their engine has limited horsepower.
  5. Existential explanation, the audience is bored. The same stories cascade through the networks. There is research on recurrent cascades. Aggregators aggregated each other. Paul Virilio can be helpful here: social media could have simply accelerated itself to an early grave. They kept the feed too fresh for too long and burned out the lifeworld necessary recirculate. No one wants to see minimalist color blocks of the marvel super heroes nine times. Once is enough. I am shocked by how much of the clickstream is stuff I have seen before, or is just crap that never went into storage for the future. As new workers enter the viral content production industry, they think what is new to them is new to everyone. They strike ostensible viral gold on stories explored years ago. High turnover and nearly instant circulation burned out the feedstocks for viral culture. Perhaps the bored user will make new content and distribute it via their networks, which then the aggregators will make into something? Or they might just stare out the bus window and think: wow, all these expensive houses have bad roofs.

6. This could be cyclical — the public is just burned out and it is summer. Much like how television had seasons, so does social media. I usually call this the post-March Madness disintegration. In most of the United States it gets warm outside, and people are tired of focusing on macro culture, so they go outside or do other things. By August back to school season, they will be ready to focus on online text cultures again. This is why I tend to see February as the season for peak-web outrage. People might just be hiding from social network news until they are ready to do some fall election stuff, or perhaps until after the election ends. Publics returning could create a positive feedback loop (synergy) that makes the ambient social fun again, until the affect-task match slips again when they try to go into high-gear monetization and a few negative cascades hit , in which case the public will retreat until next time. The networks would index public affect, rather than produce it, which isn’t to say that media don’t modulate affect, but that it is entirely possible that public social network discourse has gotten the relationship between publics and networks backwards.

The underlying assumption that affective investment could reach a max level and be sustained seems silly. CPMT suggests that relational integration can wax and wane, this seems like an entirely reasonable explanation.

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