Lost in the Noise: How Social Networks Become Too Big to Succeed

Published on Author Eli Fennell

Facebook is closing in on a billion members.  This should be a great thing.  It isn’t.  It’s not exactly a bad thing, either, it does mean the potential for tremendous advertising revenue.  It also means the opportunities for discovery on Facebook are increasingly narrowing.

Loyal Google+ members often speak of the value of Google+ in terms of it being easier to find and be found by people with similar interests.  This process of discovery builds loyalty to the product and brings in more and more interested parties seeking the same opportunities for discovery and willing to promote the service to others.  The same, however, was more or less true of Facebook in the early days, as contrasted with the much larger and more bloated MySpace.

Twitter also offers tremendous opportunity for discovery, in large part because, despite claiming nearly a quarter billion users, only a small minority of its users are responsible for creating the majority of its content, and content creators form connections and help build networks of influence for each other.  If Twitter ever becomes as large and active as Facebook, the opportunities for discovery will narrow considerably, and the same may be true for Google+ as well.

The idea that a social network can be “too late to the game” is therefore as ridiculous as the idea that a television network can be too late to the game, although to some degree this is becoming true because television is a single medium and the more channels are available through that medium, the harder it becomes to be discovered.  Channels targeted at particular niches like sci-fi, cartoons, and drama can somewhat cut through the noise in some cases, but as long as every channel is one or a few button pushes away, the chances for discovery will narrow as the number of channels grows.

Each social network is more like a different medium, however, because each has their own account setup and their own best and worst ways of being discovered or discovering quality people, brands, etc… through that medium.  One cannot view a person’s Tweets from Facebook, for example, unless they cross-post (not advisable), etc…, whereas a television subscriber likely has only a single television service account and can move fluidly between the different channels with minimal redundancy (BBC America is a single television channel, but has multiple social network presences, for example).

Consequently, at the moment, there is still plenty of opportunity for new social networks to arrive, their popularity driven by the greater potential for discovery.  In terms of a Theory of Communication, we can understand this as a Signal-To-Noise Ratio, or Meaningful Information versus Meaningless Information.  Early adopters tend to produce more meaningful signals, while late adopters tend to increasingly clog up the channels with meaningless noise.

Noise can also be increased by anything that adds meaningless data; Facebook Apps, and especially Open Graph Apps designed for Frictionless Sharing, for example, generate a lot of meaningless noise with far less signal.  The fact that your Spotify App shared a particular song automatically says nothing, in and of itself, about whether you liked the song, would listen to more by the same artist, would pay to listen to more, or would encourage others to do the same.

News Reader Apps for Facebook have generated noise in the form of old and often irrelevant articles ranking above fresher and more relevant content.  Status updates generated by Facebook games generated so much noise, and the games themselves were often so mindlessly simplistic and repetitive, that, ultimately, people started to ignore or actively block these updates, and generally to lose interest, and consequently Facebook is no longer growing as a gaming platform even as its numbers skyrocket.

In fact, Facebook’s foolhardy strategy is increasingly predicated on generating huge volumes of noise, which inflate the engagement and activity levels but at best distort, often beyond recognition, any valuable signals coming from the members themselves, especially from the Power Users who generate the most and highest quality content.  The more noise is added, not only does it become harder to be discovered, it becomes harder even to be noticed and engaged by those who have already discovered you.

Twitter’s noise level isn’t quite as high, both because of numbers and because less artificial noise is generated, but unfortunately neither is its signal level, owing to 144-character limits and the use of things like (often undecipherable) shorthand, which can turn otherwise useful signals into noise.  Google+ strikes a balance by offering a high signal bandwith like Facebook (but even higher), without as much artificial noise, and is still in the early adopter period when users who generate more signal than noise are prevalent.

This is part of why Guy Kawaski, former Chief Evangelist of Apple, has become a Chief Evangelist for Google+ as a social network with maximum discovery potential, at least at this stage in its history, which he suggests is unlikely to ever repeat itself as it grows larger.  Google+ has a higher ratio of signal compared with noise, and makes discovery of the best signal sources easier with things like Shared Circles.  Kawaski himself has gone so far as to suggest that, for anyone seeking discovery and engagement on a social network, Google+ should be a primary focus at the moment.

On Google+ there are people being discovered who would have been lost in the noise, or lack of signal bandwidth, of its competitors, becoming successful musicians (like Daria Musk), food gurus, writers, journalists, and much more in a way that they might never have been discovered elsewhere.  In effect, Google+ is becoming a talent sink, draining and accumulating the quality talent from its competitors.

A smart marketer or promoter seeks a place where the crowd is large enough without being too large, and the ratio of Signal to Noise is weighted heavily in favor of the signal.  Google+ fits this criteria to a T, which is part of why developers are planning to focus more on Google+ in 2012 than Facebook (but not the only reason).  This means that even with fewer active users, Google+ will be more valuable to Google than Facebook is to Facebook.

So will Google+ repeat this pattern of early adoption driven by discovery but ultimately drowned out in the noise as its number of users and uses grows?  Perhaps.  It seems, however, that Google is aware of this issue and is taking steps to minimize the Noise ratio.  Circles, Spam Blocking, Verified Accounts, their decision to approach their API for apps and other third-party extensions of the service with care and caution, and more directly engaging features like Hangouts (where the noise is inherently lower), and more help to isolate the signal from the noise.

Google Search has a much higher ratio of Signal to Noise than Facebook; one more frequently searches for a product on Google Search to buy it, while Liking the same product on Facebook is less likely to indicate a purchase intent, for example.  Google Search is consequently far more valuable for marketing and promotion in many ways, and Google seems determined to maintain this standard for their social network, and hence their slow, methodical, and at times seemingly confusing approach to building it.

The number of users, or their total engagement levels, ultimately means far less as a business model than the quality of the users and the signals they generate, and Google is keenly aware of this, taking nearly the exact opposite “spread the noise” approach of Facebook.  If Google continues to ensure a high quality of Signal to Noise ratio as the service grows, it should at least mitigate the issue of explosive growth increasing the noise level.  Twitter minimizes noise largely through its low bandwidth, which is too limiting for many users to feel inclined to generate useful signals, but this, again, also means a lower signal quality.

If Google fails to keep the signal quality high, then it can be almost certain that someone else will take their place, offering a better place for meaningful discovery and engagement for users.  Even a dying social network like MySpace could resurrect itself, both by the decreasing user base generating more useful social signals with less noise, and by focusing on particular niches, as MySpace is now focused on musicians.

MySpace can even be used through Facebook now, and we can be sure will come to Google+ as well when the API allows it, and generates higher quality signals with less noise than Facebook for the particular niche it focuses on.  This can be mutually beneficial in increasing the signal quality (and possibly the bandwidth as well) for both networks, but in the end will always run the risk of being overwhelmed by the noise from other features, products, brands, and services tied into the same noisy “parent network”.

It’s clear, when understood in this light, that the social networking game is far from over, that in fact it may just be getting started, and if any one social network can achieve an unbreakable hold over the market, it will be through encouraging high quality, high bandwidth signals while reducing and filtering the noise level.  This is both the challenge, and the opportunity, any young and growing social network offers.