Is a social media bubble ready to burst?

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Right up front I should say that I think I'm suffering from bubble fatigue. I entered the workforce just before the dotcom bubble went bust. Since then, it seems as though bubbles have dominated much of my adult life. If I'm not hearing about a bubble that just burst, I'm wondering if we're in the middle of some bubble that's about to burst. And yet for all this talk of bubbles, there seems to be no talk of a bubble for bubbles.

I mention this because I was a little wary when an editor at iMedia asked me to write about the possibility of a social media bubble. In March, Umair Haque had written a blog post in the Harvard Business Review hypothesizing that we were indeed in the middle of a social media bubble. (Depending on your definition, blogs can be considered social media, but that irony wasn't mentioned in the post.)

At first, I thought Haque's argument was rather silly. After all, in May Nielsen reported that three out of four U.S. households with internet access logged on to social networks. But as I began reading, I couldn't stop thinking about my Facebook page, and Haque's argument that social networks offered a lot of rather "thin" relationships.

A year ago, I couldn't get enough of Facebook. I referred to it as my morning Facebook, as in my morning paper. It was the first site I checked every day, and it was a pretty awesome news report on the people I cared about most. But then something changed. I'm not sure when or why, but the more interesting people in my social network stopped posting as often. Real life friends, who overlapped but had their own social networks, made similar observations around the same time.

Increasingly, the interesting updates were replaced with a growing stream of cryptic -- and at times -- nonsensical messages. Sadly, that trend has continued. I still check Facebook, but when I do, I wonder why I bother. The value of Facebook -- for me anyway -- has gone down over the last year. And that's what got me thinking that Haque might have a point, or at the very least, that his argument was worth exploring with some of the people who live and work inside that so-called social media bubble.

While many people had their own conclusions about whether there is indeed a social media bubble (it was more or less a 50/50 split), just the mere mention of the bubble prompted some rather interesting -- and candid -- responses. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusion about whether we're truly in a bubble (and if you're feeling really social, by all means share those conclusions with the class in the comments section). For now, I'd like to share some of the responses to Haque's post, as I believe they highlight some of the more interesting issues currently facing social media.

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Jacob Zuteck
Jacob Zuteck July 27, 2011 at 10:40 PM

I think I agree with the bubble. I think that soon people will start boycotting these outlets because they are starting to get made fun of, as seen in the latest Toyota ad. However, I wonder if business will be able to separate itself, for example, a company that I've been designing a website for has started integrating their">applicant tracking software package with Facebook. Trying to determine the kind of person that they are interviewing and potentially hiring. It has become a tool that they seem almost dependent on, and I can't see how they can separate from that once they have it established.

Isabel Ewen
Isabel Ewen July 21, 2011 at 8:52 AM

Our cyber selves are not necessarily a true reflection of our embodied selves; instead our cyber selves are heavily influenced by an online desire to please and connect, using funny, witty comments in a social environment where no-one sees each other and therefore confidence is off the scale and our wit endless; which in time becomes incredibly exhausting to both ourselves and others. Eventually our human being selves crave face to face recognition and contact and logging off becomes a pleasure; chats in the office kitchen, at a friend's house become our preference again and again, and we naturally withdraw from such social networking fads... until the next one comes out.

Bryan Coe
Bryan Coe July 9, 2010 at 2:20 PM

Interesting post, but the real question lies in how you use social media. If you think it's the end all of communication and marketing. The "bubble" will probably burst. But, if you understand that it is a new effective way to communicate and get exposure for your company and add it to your toolbox, then it can be very powerful.

Ignoring it all together can be a dangerous thing. Missing an opportunity to take advantage of the power of new tool could leave you behind put you at a dissadvantage compared to your competitors.

Erick Pettersen
Erick Pettersen July 9, 2010 at 11:35 AM

Just as the physiological properties of a water bubble, as well as the geological conditions surrounding that bubble, make it inevitable that that bubble will burst, so it is with economic/social bubbles. If you look at bubbles we've had in the recent past, they're defined by 1.) Who's put in charge of maintaining them. 2.) How they are maintained. 3.) People's reactions to those bubbles.

With that said, the life of social media, or at least its importance to businesses, will be determined by who's left in charge of companies social media efforts. If businesses continue to put people straight out of college in charge of their social media, there will be a social media bubble. People in their early 20s have primarily been self-taught to use social media. I am sure many universities have social media marketing classes. Though, since social media is so new, and it always changing, it is difficult to teach. For that reason, people rely on personal experience to teach them. A person straight out of college, who has little social media experience beyond keeping in touch with people they already know or using it for a popularity contests, are the worst people to put in charge of a social media marketing campaign.

As to the public's reaction to social media, people are starting to form groups based on location and interest. Niche social media will become more and more popular because people still want to use social media to develop personal connections.

So, is there a social media bubble? If young people, straight out of college, who have learned to use social media as nothing more than a barometer of popularity, continue to be left in charge of it, then yes. If people with the experience to realize that social media must be used to develop new connections that form into lasting relationships (social retention), then no.


Dana Webster
Dana Webster July 7, 2010 at 3:15 PM

I ended-up as one of those people with the fancy title, but I am far from what you would call an expert. The understanding of the importance of monitoring what is being said about the brand is here, but the brand is still being held-up by the FDA. It will be very interesting to see what happens when all comes to fruition.

Almost every commercial on TV now says, "Visit us on Facebook at......". I have "Liked" some Facebook pages for companies, but I rarely read their posts.

Social Media has been a Godsend today. I'm very outspoken about being a cancer survivor. Getting cancer after the birth of my second child was pivotal in my life. My cousin, 36 this Saturday, has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, a hard-to-treat form of cancer. Social Media has allowed me to network rapidly to find the names of specialists across the country.

I don't care about where you ate lunch on FourSquare, but tangible advice that could save the life of a new father is worth cutting through the fluff for me today.

For the record, I call myself a Social Media Student. I have a lot to learn and am far from having expertise.

Richard Meyer
Richard Meyer July 6, 2010 at 2:57 PM

BRAVO ! I cannot say enough about how spot on this piece is and I have added some excepts to my BLOG giving credit to the author.

Social media does not make up for bad marketing nor does it make sense for a lot of brands. Here in CA I often see ads for social media interns which to me shows how clueless these companies really are. I mean do you want an intern to be the brand's voice and contact ?

Too many bad marketers out there using social media as a hail Mary pass and it shows. Well written I salute you sir

Michael Estrin
Michael Estrin July 6, 2010 at 2:40 PM

Thanks everyone for your comments and for keeping this article *social.* Really nice to return from a holiday weekend and have comments galore.

Bill Grunau
Bill Grunau July 6, 2010 at 2:33 PM

Great blog post Michael and THANK YOU for being bold enough to call out the self annointed social media gurus and self declared ninjas. I agree most have very little real experience and are basing their advice on the last few years they have been involved in business.

I agree there is a social media bubble developing if for no other reason than the fact that corp marketing ignored it until very recently, now there is a mad rush to catch, be "first" (fyi too late for that guys), and be the best. This is going to induce a pendulum effect where it will swing from nearly zero investment to dramatic over investment. The result of the over investment will be too much money spent with hyper-inflated expectations, followed by disappointment, which will be followed by "I told you so" and budget cuts... resulting in a bubble.

Great post Michael, I could not agree more!
Bill Grunau

Katheryn Starr
Katheryn Starr July 6, 2010 at 10:54 AM

Perhaps a look at the bubble of bubbles may be a more interesting study. I was an early adopter of facebook and by the time I had found my long lost very best friend from the second grade that I hadn't seen in, well, a long time, I was back to a cup of tea in the morning foregoing the facebook wake-up. Generally, when we see the decline of a technology, we are seeing it replaced with something else. From computers for online activity to our mobile device, from the original social network nightmare of myspace to facebook, many predicted that twitter would replace facebook because of its rapid increase of tweeters. However, twitter does not offer the same easy access to many of the features that loyal facebookers log on for. With some of the recent updates of being able 'to like' a product or article (like this one), right from the page, I suspect this will re-engage many users as we have seen that social opinions for purchasing have overtaken other sources of information years ago. The bubble may have not burst, it just may have broken away from the magic wand floating to a new direction.

Marv Dorner
Marv Dorner July 2, 2010 at 4:13 PM

Just comparing it to a "normal" business cycle of introduction, growth, maturity and decline I would say social networking hasn't even gotten out of the Growth stage.

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are adding uses like crazy and other competitors are still trying to make a dent. The fact that companies are basing their entire business model on one or more of the big sites indicates that we are reaching a maturity stage with many years to come.

So no, in my opinion we aren't in danger of a bubble bursting on the social media front.

Julio Hernandez-Miyares
Julio Hernandez-Miyares July 2, 2010 at 1:50 PM

For me - 1 out of the millions of Facebook users, I too followed the same patterns you mentioned - my morning newspaper (after the NY Times of course). Well, I just got sick of the syrupy stuff from my friends. Most of my facebook friends are either real friends or business friends. Could not take one more baby picture or "Honey I love you , you are the greatest wife or husband" or similar nonsense which is not nonsense but part of life except I realized I don'r need to be so much a part of it for all those I consider friends.
I do spend a lot of time on LinkedIn as at least there is an obvious decorum based on it's professional thrust.

Bud Layne
Bud Layne July 2, 2010 at 9:45 AM

It seems that anything that generates a high level of excitement will go through a natural 'cycle' of usefulness. The Internet is a classic example.

Phase 1 (the Birth) is an idea and acceptance by early adopters. The 'buzz' generated is based on the perceived value of the idea.

Phase 2 (the Storm) is widespread usage and the 'feeding frenzy'. The idea gains much wider acceptance, the number of users increases wildly. Other imagineers get on board with ways to expand the use of the idea and capitalize on it. This phase will begin the 'bubble' effect and may last a short time or a few years. The duration of the bubble may be attributed to the number of bad ideas that are implemented - the larger the number of bad ideas, the shorter the duration of the bubble.

There is usually a cycling of peaks and valleys in the bubble period much like the stock market. What makes it hard to predict is that the good ideas send the value higher, and the bad ideas send it lower. Consumers grow weary of the bad ideas, because they have wasted resources - time or money.

Phase 3 (the Norm) is settling period or period of adjustment. If there have been a large number of good ideas, followed closely by the bad ideas, then you might get the 'burst' effect of the bubble. If there was a real value in the idea in the first place, then it will eventually regain momentum - the cycle starts again.

Social Media is a fairly young phenomenon. Because of technology and the use of the Internet these phases, or cycles, are becoming shorter and shorter.

This seems to be the way a capitalistic economy works. We get the bad with the good. Hopefully in the end, the good will have outweighed the bad - and we're better off for it.