On Colony Collapse

How accelerated network growth is making online marketing increasingly fragile.

“What if, by expanding the network with increasing weaker and weaker ties and links you create a network that becomes so fragile it inevitably collapses under its own weight of meaninglessness?”

– Author Unknown (MobCon):’Is the collapse of Facebook inevitable?’

The Vanishing Of The Bees’ Documentary Trailer

“We live at a time when friendship has become both all and nothing at all… [So] In retrospect, it seems inevitable that once we decided to become friends with everyone, we would forget how to be friends with anyone.”

– William Deresiewicz: ‘Faux Friendship’ 

The incredible documentary film ‘The Vanishing of the Bees’ depicts one of the most heartbreaking consequences of mass-industrial agriculture, a phenomenon referred to as ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (or as it’s sometimes referred to, ‘Spontaneous Hive Collapse’), an event where worker bees from a hive abruptly and mysteriously disappear. The apiarist community remains confused and in many ways powerless to stop what they have seen as the cumulative effect of years of stronger pesticides, environmental effects, forced bee migration, malnutrition, and a host of other contemporary factors putting enormous stress on the honey bees’ ability to pollinate what ultimately becomes our food.

Considering that one third of everything we consume is dependent upon the pollination process, any significant disruption in the work of the honey bee population has the capacity to severely impact the ability to serve an increasingly strained food chain. The colonies are collapsing faster than they can be built, the focus being on expanding the existing networks, not making them stronger. Reach over strength, leading to over-reaching, and collapse. In a week which will see the global population exceed 7 billion, what can be seen as a small issue has the capacity to produce catastrophic results.

Throughout our history, we’ve always learned a tremendous amount from observing the activity of bees, dating back hundreds of years through Near East and Aegean cultures (Bee (mythology)), and the current climate of social networking, digital relationship building, and online brand marketing can learn much from what is happening to them right now.

“In the end the users abandon their digital nests because they become bored with yesterday and decide to go in search of tomorrow”.

– Author Unknown (MobCon):’Is the collapse of Facebook inevitable?’

There are many parallels between the plight of the bees and the current trends of ever expanding social networks. Both are incredibly fragile systems of perceived community, relationships and connections. Both are highly impacted by external forces acting upon them, weakening them, causing them to adapt and grow stronger, or risk collapse. Both are highly susceptible to cascading failure.

Many power users of social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter focus on the expansion of their own networks, with particular reference to the size of the audience they’re reaching – a distinct focus on friend and follower counts for example. This approach doesn’t make your network stronger, it just makes you really finely tuned at collecting names and assembling them into a database. It is not actual friendship, nor is it what many term ‘engagement’. It is barely even a connection. The idea propagated by the social networks themselves is that the idea of increasing your personal network exponentially expands and extends the value of the platform itself. It’s a self-satisfying and self-aggrandizing cycle. User growth rates as a key metric of critical mass and platform success are used as litmus tests to gauge investment valuations and brand viability. Not the strength of the ties between the users, just exclusively the volume of users. Anyone wishing to go deeper into this topic should read this fascinating post on why 80% of Twitter accounts remain inactive via Social Media Today.

This becomes particularly apparent when you look at those users who have the most connections, the power users. These are the people with hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, millions of Facebook fans, and who rush in to new platforms such as Google Plus as if its a big, fertile open space just waiting to be fertilized. And fertilize it they do, very swiftly and aggressively. These are the users dominating the activity feeds of new platforms. In performing that process, the power users gain a tremendous amount of visibility and market share for their own content (especially within the news feed or stream model), but also have the acute ability to kill off the platform should they ever choose to leave. When a power user departs a social network, the hundreds of thousands of ties, however weak, collapse, and so at scale the whole infrastructure begins to collapse, and the social network begins to die. This is directly what happened with MySpace, which remains a desperate shell, an empty husk of what it once was.

This makes social networks innately fragile and unstable, the only true economic value of them being in your ability to monetize the relationships embedded in the networks themselves (there are of course, other systems of value applicable to them which I’d be remiss not to at least allude to here). Given that these systems are so prone to collapse so quickly, why is there so much advocacy for building the future of business upon them? The answer is, of course, that it’s the platforms that are the unstable parts, not the relationships between those who choose to use them to make genuine, meaningful connections (I still believe these users are very much in the minority).

The unfortunate premise behind increasing the volume of your connections is that as a natural consequence, the cumulative strength of all your ties becomes weaker. The ability to connect to different networks implies that at scale, we’re actually friends with everyone now, especially in the era of the public, widespread status update. We’re simultaneously distant and close, friends with everyone, but ultimately not real friends with anyone. Many are suggesting that Facebook and its peers are a terrifying digital look into the future of friendships themselves.

So the question for those building their business upon these fragile platforms is, what happens to all those ‘relationships’ you’ve built when the platform collapses? Do they still exist in the real world if you no longer have the online destination at which you used to meet? For those power users amongst you who embraced Friendster and MySpace, are your connections different in Facebook and Twitter? I’d suggest that they definitely are. I am a big advocate of using social media to meet people in real life. This approach futureproofs you in the face of network collapse. Face to face is in many ways, relationship conversion when it comes to social media marketing, and there are hundreds of testimonials within the real estate community of the power of meeting in person, most powerfully with people who become customers of course. If you’re looking to strengthen all of your online connections, go to a conference like Real Estate Connect and meet all those people in real life – work on strengthening that follower count and move it away from just being a list of random names you know nothing about. Don’t collect names.

William Deresiewicz, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, describes it best:

“Facebook seduces us, however, into exactly that illusion, inviting us to believe that by assembling a list, we have conjured a group. Visual juxtaposition creates the mirage of emotional proximity. “It’s like they’re having a conversation” a woman I know once said, about her Facebook page, full of posts and comments from her friends and friends of friends. “Except they’re not”.”

This represents a fundamental shift in how we perceive and describe groups, communities and relationships. There’s a feeling of community and connection, but its synthetic. It’s manufactured and rarely genuine. Deresiewicz calls this ‘the feeling without the structure’. It’s not the genuinely connective social experience it aspires to be or promises its users.

It’s a simulation and visualization of a relationship, but it’s not. It appears to be all of your friends and acquaintances assembled into one place, but it’s not. It’s small, disconnected bite-sized packets of information. These connections are no more your friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.

Deresiewicz concludes:

“We haven’t stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.”

He goes on to illustrate this idea through how we use Facebook and Twitter, broadcasting millions of streams of consciousness, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. It recalls the process of sending messages out into the cosmos in the distant hope that there’s life out there somewhere… somewhere. So as we pour more of our time and efforts into propagating these platforms with what we can only modestly refer to as ‘content’, fueling the vast accumulation of data available to advertisers to push more and more targeted messaging towards us, we desperately grasp at the idea of genuine, long-lasting connection, through accumulating as many connections as possible. It’s an arms race where nobody wins, the front runners only demonstrating their false sense of popularity reminiscent of a high school prom. Many even refer to their work within those connections by industrial, mechanized terms – ‘farming’, ‘mining’ and ‘prospecting’ are all common terms used in reference to the collection of weak ties we accumulate.

Many of you will be familiar with Mark Granovetter’s work on ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, where he argues that they:

“… are responsible for the majority of the embeddedness and structure of social networks in society as well as the transmission of information through these networks. Specifically, more novel information flows to individuals through weak rather than strong ties. Because our close friends tend to move in the same circles that we do, the information they receive overlaps considerably with what we already know. Acquaintances, by contrast, know people that we do not, and thus receive more novel information.”

– Mark Granovetter: “The Impact of Social Structures on Economic Development.”

Journal of Economic Perspectives (Vol 19 Number 1, pp. 33-50) 2004

So if information flows through a social network better and more effectively because of weak ties, and if we get more interesting information from those we’re less directly connected to, how important is it really to build those genuinely meaningful and long-lasting relationships within those same services? If you’re receiving the most interesting information from someone you barely know, how important is it to strengthen that particular connection? This is where being a ‘faceless’ brand can actually have its advantages inside a social network. While the tone and delivery of a message can humanize the perception of an otherwise anonymous brand, not knowing who’s behind the account forces the delivery to always remain a weak tie. No-one is ‘friends’ with a brand in that way, even though the language of the networks themselves imply otherwise. You can have an emotional connection with a brand, or an experience through their product that resonates with you personally, but you’re not ‘friends’. Certainly not in the manner Granovetter or Deresiewicz suggest.

This is why those who have accumulated the largest followings are perceived as being the most interesting and perhaps even influential (my previous thoughts on influence can be found here: http://bit.ly/nMbcrt), but they have the largest volume of weak ties. As a direct result, you have an increased pool of people finding the posts distributed by these power users to be the most interesting. It’s an ironic conundrum which directly plays into the idea of just ‘getting more fans’, which is a destructive and ultimately endless endeavor. So which is the better side to come down on? Have more weak ties and be perceived as more interesting by a larger pool of people, or have fewer strong ties that are only found partly interesting but by actual people you know? There are clear benefits to both approaches, but the important layer that’s missing on this is real-world conversion. Taking those relationships offline. Making them meaningful. Monetizing them. At scale, you can’t do that with a weak tie, however interesting you might find them, and a system made up of entirely weak ties is incredibly unstable, especially if you’re building your business upon it. The two approaches have different lifespans.

“Networks that are resilient on their own become fragile and prone to catastrophic failure when connected, suggests a new study with troubling implications for tightly linked modern infrastructures. Electrical grids, water supplies, computer networks, roads, hospitals, financial systems – all are tied to each other in ways that could make them vulnerable.”

– Brandon Keim: ‘Networked Networks Are Prone to Epic Failure’ Wired, April 15th 2010

 

“When networks are interdependent, you might think they’re more stable. It might seem like we’re building in redundancy. But it can do the opposite,”

– Eugene Stanley, Boston University Physicist

Quoted in ‘Networked Networks Are Prone to Epic Failure’ Wired, April 15th 2010

If you buy into the idea that social conversion is real-world face to face, with measurable action, including monetization, earned media and genuine deeper transactional relationships, then accumulating followers has nothing to do with business building. Accumulating the larger number of connections on Google Plus may win you the short-term high school popularity contest, but if it struggles to go beyond a strategy of ‘engagement’ that amounts to just keeping up with comments by answering ‘Cool, thanks!’ to everything, then I believe you don’t have much to proceed with. It’s a different idea from just increasing the size of your lead funnel too. We’re not talking about widening the prospecting pool with this approach, we mean deepening the existing one and getting it to work harder and smarter for you.

Online social networks have historically had about a seven year lifespan before beginning their initial spiral of decline. While Facebook has far outlived that for now, Twitter has a couple of years to go before reaching that point of perceived critical mass, and YouTube is right on that tipping point this year. Google Plus is a comparative infant at 4 months old. Uncharted, unproven, and unstable at best. These networks have outlived many other digital properties once heralded for their astonishing user growth. Take the example of the once popular Digg:


“Digg’s collapse has become a cautionary tale for so-called Web 2.0 companies in Silicon Valley, even the current crop of superstars, like Facebook and Twitter. The basic problem is that these new-media companies don’t really have customers; they have audiences. Starting a company like Digg is less like building a traditional tech company (think Apple or HP) and more like launching a TV show. And perhaps, like TV shows, these companies are ephemeral in nature. People flock in for a while, then get bored and move on.”

– Daniel Lyons: ‘Digg This. A cautionary tale for Web 2.0 companies.’

Newsweek, October 24th 2010

Lyons raises the most important point for anyone working online to remain in business. There’s a distinct difference between an audience and a customer base. Not really having customers isn’t a digital problem, it’s a real world one, especially if you have a large online audience.

What do you currently have for your business? Think about this if you’re working on building out your network through the accumulating of weak ties. They may temporarily find you interesting, but they are inherently fickle in nature, and move on swiftly. Anyone who’s a fan of ‘The Office’ will be witnessing what that acute spiral of content and viewership decline looks like in the current (and perhaps final) season… sorry Andy. Digital natives graze, and move on to fresh pastures… every day.

However strong you may think your ‘community’ is behind your presence on Facebook or Twitter, it is incredibly temporal in nature, fragile and unstable on top of a platform prone to collapse, and inherently risky if not taken offline as much as possible. Just as a real book has the longevity to outlast its e-reader cousins, offline relationships have a much greater capacity to outlive the ones you have on Facebook or Twitter. The only real platform immune to collapse is the real world, but then again, the bees might disagree with me on that.