*Originally published on LinkedIn August 13th, 2019. Re-publishing includes added Table of Contents.
“Social Media,” as a whole, DOES monopolize a majority of all of our time. If you follow the news there’s growing momentum of concern across headlines and in our government regarding “big tech’s” stranglehold on market competition, and an increasing call to “break tech up.” I am not an anti-trust lawyer and this article is not a legal argument tied to anti-trust laws or precedents.
However, outside all the red tape laden drama bluster we’ll see unfold as government finally perhaps will endeavor to better understand tech implications and how to properly regulate tech companies (which will largely gravitate around quantitative & legal reasoning), I already know one answer. It’s common sense, or, in other words, a matter of simple qualitative reasoning which is plain to see for everyone: there is NO “Social Media Monopoly.”
In order to calibrate us properly for understanding the “why” behind my headline, let’s first get on the same page in our terminology nomenclature. Using the dictionary:
Monopoly: the exclusive possession or control of the supply of or trade in a commodity or service.
In other words, there is only one ultimate vendor for the thing you want.
Social Media: Websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.
Social Networking: the use of dedicated websites and applications to interact with other users, or to find people with similar interests to oneself.
Both of those last two definitions should be amended to replace the words “websites and applications” with the word “technology” instead to be more accurate. I mean, show some respect to the plain old telephone systems (POTS). I would also change the words “share” and “interact” to “communicate.”
With that said, these definitions (from Oxford online) will do just fine to make my points nonetheless.
Spoiler alert, everything we use to communicate socially without being face to face is Social Media, and that’s very important to understand. Entertainment is the service it provides and there’s plenty of competition. If that doesn’t make sense just follow me on a quick path from how we got here to where we’re going…
No one really knows when social media was born. I mean, those caves in Lascaux don’t have a timestamp that tells exactly when those pics were posted. Nor is the Venus of Hohle Fels marked with what date that content was published. At the core, Social Media has been around since before humanity ever evolved into the species we are today.
Have you ever seen a dog do Social Networking? I have. Every time I’ve seen a dog pee. You see, dogs, like many animals, use their scent to communicate on the world for both social and “business” purposes.
Just the same, I imagine cave people have at least marked in the dirt with sticks to share their likes and stories with others (or even just for themselves) since the dawn of man. Probably they did something else that I don’t know even before they did that.
There is truly no way to know when the first social networking took place in the lifespan of humans and exactly which form of media was used.
However, thinking of the history and the fundamental function of social media and networking at this scope is critical for properly framing how we have evolved to where we are today concerning it’s use globally. Drawings, words, books, sculptures, art, pictures, films, letters in the snail mail, actual bulletin boards, post it notes, flyers, signs… any vehicle that we use to capture our experience and ideas is “media.”
Social Media as a term only distinguishes the use case of media as being centered around social interaction, aka entertainment.
I acknowledge that, when we’re talking about “Social Media Monopoly” today, comparing the market power of Facebook with Da Vinci is apples to oranges to say the least. Duh.
So, to narrow the scope as it applies to modern social media and technology business market context, let’s consider function and features centered around sharing, interaction, and collaboration across distances in time. Furthermore, let’s be clear about what service or commodity is delivered by it… and the revenue models involved.
For most of our modern age, media has not been interactive in real time, if even interactive capable at all. It did not enable “us” to share with each other “peer to peer” through it, and only enabled limited direct communication mechanisms for us, and only with the media itself.
TV, Movies, and “traditional” art and writing, have been “one way” forms of communication throughout their lifespans. Writing letters is interactive turn by turn, but not real time. TV can be live in near real time, but the only data we could communicate back through the TV network is from channel selection, and video purchases. That used to be the extent of our capability to “like” or “share” what interests us through (and with) the media we socially enjoy.
In early TV history broadcast networks channels were free as a service to people. Business revenue revolved around targeting advertising to user attention (ratings) and hardware sales for the devices needed to connect. The advancement of TV and introduction of pay for TV cable technology scaled the entertainment industry capabilities to meet our enjoyment’s demands and shaped consumer spending and world awareness.
The invention of the phone broke a barrier in Social Media evolution too. We could play music to each other through it and talk about ANYTHING, uncensored, person to person or even in party line and call waiting groups, in real time. We would “search” for others we knew using the phone book, in white and yellow pages. The phone is still a Social Media vehicle, only it’s evolved thanks to the internet and advances in mobility technology.
While the POTS enabled Social Networking, the content we sent through it wasn’t captured. The words we spoke were lost by default, rather than recorded in media anywhere. The information that was captured for business was related to call times and sessions’ geographic boundaries between users. We paid for this service as a universal standard.
Phone, TV, and computing hardware tech advancements spliced DNA and had a baby. We named it the world wide web, or internet for short. Email, chat, and web pages with message boards that I remember using in the early 1990’s were the first forms of Social Media as we know it today. They brought the ability for us to input and output together with each other in real time and near real time. The content we produced was captured in the media.
These earliest forms of social media were largely pay for service features. Back then households had (3) bills perhaps, to be “fully connected.” We paid the phone company, the cable company, and if we wanted to connect we had to buy software first and then also pay an Internet Service Provider (ISP). There were ads on the internet back then that provided revenue for free websites, but revenue from consumers to access the internet at all helped build the evolving infrastructure and industry too.
We learned to use the internet for commerce and for our social networking too. Online dating, blogging, picture sharing, bulletin boards, chat, email, video conferencing and sharing, gaming, and more all became realities that facilitated the increase of our level of social interaction on a global scale.
When Facebook and Myspace arrived it was not the birth of social media, nor social networking. There were even earlier attempts towards a similar product before those platforms which simply hadn’t become successful. However, Facebook and Myspace redefined our perception of social media in how they amplified and integrated what we could share with each other, and how we could share it all in one package in a way which humanity had never experienced before.
We became more connected through and addicted to social media than ever, and the business of it boomed.
Both of those platforms were free for us to use without purchasing software. We still have to pay for internet access, but the cable and telecom companies of old have become our ISPs who can “bundle” our ability to connect. Telecom still collects for the infrastructure and access, phone services still charges interstate fees, and social media uses the entertainment industry ad model to sell ads targeted to user ratings in order to satiate our demand for social networking enjoyment, free of “charge” for us.
It all blitz scaled for us, not against our will.
Now that we’ve finished strolling through memory lane let’s take a harder look at the idea of tech and social media monopoly. What does that even mean? The headlines throw around big words but one thing I have not seen properly conveyed in anything I’ve read is a clear standard for how to define “the problem” accurately.
In a broad legal sense anti-trust is supposed to protect consumers from a sole-source condition that would allow businesses to take advantage of them, for example through price gouging. Anti-trust law is also in place to ensure that there is opportunity for new businesses to enter markets in which sustainability is possible against the competition. The ideals of anti-trust law are rooted in the American dream.
In the articles I’ve read that assert a need to “break up big tech” there’s been a lot of focus on Facebook, primarily, as having theoretically achieved some level of social media monopoly because of its ownership of Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. I’ve seen different types of metrics used to support that position such as “4 of 6” of the “top apps,” a dwarfing number of total users, and even an assertion that Facebook has nearly 50% of the “social media market”.
Using these kinds of metrics makes it easy to convince supporters, but their use is inappropriate for truly assessing the landscape.
In all the rhetoric getting thrown around there’s two very important ingredients to the legal argument which I have not seen satisfied. What is the unique commodity or service that Facebook supposedly controls? What is the social media market and how is it measured?
The “social media market” in America is NOT defined by share of ad revenue. The ad revenue follows the customer base. Ad revenue goes to media conglomerates too, not just tech and social media.
It is NOT defined by customer spend. All the “top apps” are free. Paid social media apps are no where close to the free ones in revenue.
The market is also not defined by number of users. We could all have all the apps if we wanted. Me having Facebook doesn’t preclude me from getting on Twitter, or LinkedIn. Most people I know have a presence on all major social media apps to some degree.
Here’s the reality: the “social media market” is 28,512,000,000,000 seconds a day among 330 million Americans. Globally, it’s much more.
Each day the market is in your hands and mine. The competition is for our attention on our screens. The competition is for our time. The share of time each of us spends on one app is the opportunity cost to the competition of the others. Our time away from this platform or that one means less total likes, follows, shares. Less ratings data to get ad share.
The competition in the market is much larger than the headlines would make you think.
Remember, ALL media we use to interact socially is social media. The time we spend on dating apps? Social media. The time we spend emailing our friends on Gmail? Social media. Reddit? Yelp? Nextdoor app? Youtube? When we post our opinions to interact with others on a topic it’s social media. Even parts of Craigslist are social media (Rest in peace “Personals” section, lol).
There is MORE competition now in the social media market than EVER before. Even E-Commerce is seeking to hybrid it’s business model by trying to build social media into the whole purchasing experience, for example like Poshmark. Social media might actually be the most competitive market there is, not the least.
Back in the day Facebook simply beat Myspace by keeping up with its customer pulse better and delivering the innovations that gave us the better experience. Originally, I was on Myspace way more than Facebook. However, as mobile technology advanced I, like many others, found myself on Facebook considerably more.
Myspace never changed. It never made itself easier and more seamless. It didn’t add features that expanded what I wanted to be able to do with it.
Facebook did, so it got more of my time.
Myspace fell off trend.
The fall of Myspace proved how volatile the modern social media market trending can really be, and how fast it can change. After that, Facebook seized the tremendous opportunity for more market share and definitely succeeded in monopolizing MANY people’s time for a long time, every day.
However, the time of Facebook’s “monopoly” in that way has passed.
When Facebook and Myspace first hit the scene they were the only real players. They gave us ALL the features we had been using to network socially before across different websites in one place like never before. We had never experienced a full suite of social media tools like they offered until then.
However, 15 years has passed and modern social media as a product has matured in its life cycle. When there was only Facebook and Myspace we all went there, they were all in one solutions for everyone. They were “general” solutions for everything. Today most of us still have Facebook and use it, but I see its daily shares of Americans’ precious seconds dwindling.
As our relationship with modern social media has matured our taste has become more refined. People don’t always want or need the all in one general suite anymore.
Sometimes they just want pictures of cats, so they go to Insta. Sometimes they just want to pipe in on hot topics to the world, so they go to Twitter. Snapchat is a different experience than Facebook, and I know for sure my teenage son is on it way more than any other app. LinkedIn has steadily been increasing it’s user base of people who would rather spend time on its flavor of social media than Facebook’s.
We will continue to see more flavors of social media emerge that tailor to specific types of service features and subculture audiences which will draw users’ time away from all the other apps we have today, including Facebook. There are many facets of tailored social media service markets that have not been tapped yet. Apps will emerge that tailor to them and gain a solid user base.
The competition is going to get tighter and tighter. Startups and apps that have been wasteful in the boom will feel pain. We will see more mergers and acquisitions, they will be the key to some companies’ survival… perhaps even Facebook’s. Facebook has gotten so big it needs big revenue.
None of us wants lose Facebook do we?
Don’t worry, we won’t. The move fast blitz approach will serve it well. I don’t want to lose my history from 10 years ago, or even 3… do you? I don’t know about you, but very meaningful moments of my life are captured there. Our social media presence has become part of our legacies.
In earlier iterations of our social media history we’ve done this dance before. Ma Bell got broken up because they truly were the ONLY phone company. Over the years big telcos have been heavily regulated to limit the control of our overall consumer superhighway systems. The cable companies have been kept in check to a degree, all in the name of protecting consumers and the market competition, right? Not really.
What we’ve actually seen happen is that traditional telcos have found other ways to own more of the supply chain. Where there used to be networks of content producers, TV “channels” (networks), and an overall entertainment industry which was separate and distinct from telecom which only provided the “roads” and “vehicles” for the content to reach us, it is largely the case no more.
Telco’s and networks have merged into media conglomerates, like NBC Universal Comcast, for example, or AT&T Time Warner, or Viacom, Disney, CBS. To stay in power they have had to take these actions to compete.
Why? Because social media gets it’s content for free, from us, and tech has been waging competition against media conglomerates for our entertainment time. That’s the market that should be under the microscope in any discussion of breaking up big tech.
As many people as might tune in to see the Superbowl commercials that one day a year are on Facebook every day.
As many as might watch a movie on cable, could now just watch on Prime, or surf on social media instead.
Big tech has gotten to a size where it is competing more in way with consumer service providers that is not being talked about. Think of apps as TV channels. Viacom has a whole host of different channels people might watch for different content as part of it’s overall offering to keep sustainable ratings and ad revenue.
Facebook, and the others, are only doing the same thing. Adding channels so that they can continue to service customers with a full suite of offerings tailored to their taste.
The competitive landscape of phone, TV, and internet has changed so that now I can pay it on one bill rather than three separate ones like it used to be. As a consumer I’m happy about that. It suits me.
Just the same I’m excited about Instagram integrating more fully with Facebook, like I’ve heard will be happening with the messaging functions. I’d rather be able to message in one place instead of having to go between apps.
There is benefit to consumers to be had as apps merge under one platform umbrella for ease of use. But the underlying real fear around that evolution is of making our traditional methods of getting content obsolete.
In the end, I think we’ll see most of the social media apps we use today evolve like TV networks and all get conglomerated under larger companies. Perhaps we’ll have Facebook Insta, Microsoft LinkedIn, Google Youtube, Apple Twitter, and Amazon Snapchat. We’re getting there already, but it’s not time to stop yet.
It would be antitrust to prevent tech from conglomerating because it stifles competition between “Social Media” and “Traditional Media” companies, for the true market: our time spent on entertainment. Social enjoyment, from media.
There’s no social media monopoly, the real fear stoking the some people’s fires is that tech is getting big enough to change the game of consumer telco. There’s plenty of players in the game to compete, and in the end letting them duke it out is the way consumers will get the best possible options at their hands.
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