Navigating the ‘Hotel California’ effect of social platforms

Facebook has been not-so-quietly chatting with a handful of media companies about hosting content within the platform rather than linking out to an external site. Hosting content on the platform buys media outlets an average of eight seconds of loading time – an eternity in Internet time. Yet, it isn’t the time-saving that has Buzzfeed and The New York Times considering taking Facebook up on this Faustian bargain – it’s our Facebook separation anxiety.

Social platforms are now built to breed separation anxiety: every new feature designed to keep you on the platform longer, taking in its content (and its ads). Facebook has done such a good job of it that many users consider Facebook to be separate from the broader Internet. It is, for the most part, a walled garden that doesn’t want you leaving its feed – especially now with its ever-evolving video service and partnership with media outlets.

Facebook’s younger, hipper cousin, Instagram is more insular and celebrated by its fans for not linking out to anything. Once inside Instagram, there’s no reason to leave. All exploration, discovery and engagement happens on the platform – why go elsewhere? Stick around and keep peeking into other users’ lives. It’s a zen experience, uninterrupted by links and all the opportunistic clamoring that comes with them.

Following the evolution of popular social networks, we’re led to Snapchat, which is arguably even more self contained. The entire Snapchat experience is divorced from anything we would consider the Internet – not only are there no links, the UI is like no other social network. It isn’t feed-centric and content can’t be re-shared. And with the launch of the Discover feature, users can now get their fill of content without ever exiting the platform.

Of course the last great hope — the major platform that doesn’t seem to breed Internet agoraphobia — is Twitter. It still boasts no algorithm and no preference for content that keeps you browsing on their feed. There are still plenty of links. Since Facebook killed organic reach, countless brands have made Twitter their lead platform. Yet, here’s the larger issue: As Derek Thompson’s article in The Atlantic confirmed what many of us long suspected, even though many tweets point places, nobody is actually clicking them.

We don’t want to leave these platforms. We want to be stuck in the Hotel California, prisoners of our own device.

The issue of course, is that there are places we still want to point people towards. As journalists and bloggers, there are articles we’d love our audience to read. As marketers there are sites and products we’d love to lead to. As artists and makers, there are things we’ve created that we want to show off.

But nobody seems to want to go. We’ve long heard the rumblings. The death of the Internet and the rise of apps is old news, as is the idea of social networks behaving like walled gardens. Yet the issue that is arising now, especially noting the trend towards insularity, is figuring out what to do with all of the content that doesn’t fit inside a social platform. How do you point your audience to your ecommerce platform, or your microsite?

And let’s say you’re paying for your ads on social platforms. Even if you don’t mourn the death of organic reach, you’re still paying for platforms that are more-and-more designed to keep people inside them – and even if they weren’t, people clearly don’t want to leave them. Link out all you want. Nobody’s taking the bait.

Given this shift, consider using social networks first and foremost for relationship-building, branding and awareness – rather than as a tool driving to purchase. Some would consider this evolution a step backwards towards traditional media, where all you can hope for is awareness and branding. You can’t send consumers anywhere or give them something to keep — you can only get your few seconds of awareness and hope for the best.

Yet, social networks still offer the power of ongoing relationships, an organic way to keep top of mind and cultural cache. The question remains: what happens to the Internet when it belongs to the generation raised on Snapchat and Instagram?

 

This article was originally published in Digiday. Image courtesy Shutterstock.com