Is Social Media the Next Bubble?

In the mid 1980s, the owners of some taxis and commercial vehicles tried something new: they supplemented the two traditional brake lights on the rear corners of their vehicles with a third one, positioned high in the center of the rear. The results were astonishing -- a 35-percent reduction in rear-end collisions -- and the Center High-Mounted Stop Lamp (CHMSL) was born. This fantastic safety improvement at minimal cost seemed to be a brilliant innovation, and before long it was passed into law as standard equipment.

Today, everyone has a CHMSL. It's still a decent idea, and it's still believed to reduce accidents -- by about 4 percent. What happened to the other 31 percent? Simple: now that every car on the road has one, the CHMSL isn't all that noticeable anymore. It has receded into the realm of everyday noise, where it is much easier to ignore.

Given the title of this piece, you probably see where I'm going here. I'd like to suggest that we all just... relax a little about social media. Sure, it's trendy, and in some situations it is clearly useful. But like the CHMSL, it may not turn out to be the big deal everyone thinks. I'm starting to suspect that when the newness wears off, social media will turn out to be more of a 4-percent kind of thing.

Before you label me heretical and force me to display a scarlet H on my author biography, consider a few signs that we're in the middle of a "social media bubble."

First, nobody is criticizing it. Everything in the real world has pros and cons, but have you noticed how rarely social media gets critiqued?

I'm not talking about raising information security concerns ("How do I keep some weirdo from seeing my kid's pictures?") or about comparing platforms ("Google+ vs. Facebook vs. LinkedIn vs. Twitter vs. ... "). Those conversations rage on, like debates about wiring and wattage for the bulb in your CHMSL. I'm talking about more basic questions about the real utility of the technology for business.

Here's one: How long will it take for social media users to recognize, get bored with and tune out the predictable patterns of their news feeds? New parents post baby pictures and medical updates, young professionals work late or go out drinking, students have to study or are on break (woo hoo!), retirees are out on the boat with the grandkids, and everyone checks in at Starbucks at least once a week. Now that we've all been doing this awhile, not only have our statuses become more predictable, but they've also become harder to find. That's because they're buried in real advertising, and in faux ads masquerading as other status updates. I don't know about you, but I'm already starting to ignore my feeds.

As the CHMSL went from 35-percent effective to 4-percent effective, each additional unit on the road was a fraction less noticeable than the last. What if every dollar (or hour) invested by your business in social media, starting today, has a fraction less benefit than the dollar (or hour) before it? How would that change your social media strategy?

Speaking of which, your "social media strategy" brings up my second reason for suspecting a bubble: The trendiness of social media is leading to unwise resource investments. This is classic bubble behavior, and in the case of social media it looks like this: we expend resources developing pages, campaigns and interfaces based on platforms that could change at any time. Remember when Facebook switched the button on group pages from "Be a Fan" to "Like"? Any company whose materials said "Be our fan on Facebook" had to change the message immediately or risk looking disconnected. Between websites, printed materials and ad campaigns, some companies took months to get it straightened out.

Maybe your business is creating a page on a social media platform that will break when designers rearrange the site. Maybe it's designing a radio or TV campaign destined to be awkwardly mismatched to the unforeseeable future state of your news stream. The longer the time horizon on your efforts, the more likely they represent a questionable use of resources. You wouldn't build out an office complex without a long-term lease, and you shouldn't build out an ad complex on an unstable base. And yet, when it comes to social media, everyone does it and nobody questions it. To me, that cries "bubble."

Actually, Facebook's "Be a Fan" and "Like" features also illustrate my third reason for suspecting a bubble: Social media has moved from innovation to refinement. When they first came along, group and business pages on Facebook were an innovation that opened up some major possibilities. But was the move from "Be a Fan" to "Like" really such a big leap? Now we have Google in the mix, and they will no doubt present some advantages. Yet even their own interface seems to admit that "Plus 1" and "circles" are the same thing as Facebook's "Like" and "lists," albeit dressed in more fashionable clothing.

In the early days, social media providers cleverly hung a bare bulb in your car's back window where nobody could miss it. In the last few years, they've given you better wiring and a nice plastic lens, so that your bulb would light more reliably and look more attractive. Now, is Google+ simply leading the charge to replace your bulb with a stylish cluster of red LEDs? As gorgeous as it is, I'm not sure it's an innovation. It might be just one more CHMSL in a sea of red, bright and shiny.

We're not doing anything new anymore, but we persist in acting like our minor improvements are earth-shattering innovations. Again I feel compelled to say the B word. This time I'll refrain.

Instead, before I close by suggesting that we refocus on the fundamentals -- and, lest I be saddled with labels like "luddite" and "technophobe" -- let me be clear: I am both a user and a fan of social media. I think it facilitates communication in new and interesting ways, and I believe we've yet to discover all the clever applications for it. I'm all for continuing to explore. I just hope we can stop short of declaring it the end-all, be-all of business and media. Let's avoid wasting money, time and energy on mob logic at the expense of substance.

If that means I have to put a scarlet H on my author biography, fine. Maybe I'll also make one out of red LEDs and hang it in the back window of my car.