What happens at the yawn of a new era

Social media may be headed the way of websites as its appeal loses some of its lustre along with its ability to excite, David Bowen says.

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I was reading a Wikipedia article about a large company the other day, and was struck by how dreadful the piece was. Much of it was poorly written and read like a brochure for the group. I checked the source and, yes, it was taken directly from the company’s (badly-written) website. Here was evidence that, to quote a recent BBC headline, ‘Wikipedia is fading because of lack of editors’. It also chimed with a comment by a web manager I know who said that the online free encyclopedia seemed to be quoted much less now, and was therefore less of a reputation threat.
Interesting in itself, but it could be significant way beyond Wikipedia. Could blogs, Twitter and the whole user-generated content thing be killed off by boredom?

Editors exit along with their enthusiasm

I use Wikipedia a lot, but only for subjects I can’t research anywhere else. I pay Encyclopaedia Britannica to tell me about history and things, because I have a preference for pieces I can be sure are written by real experts. But it’s not very good on the commercial world (it thinks shell is something found in the sea) and doesn’t have Wikipedia’s almost scary ability to be up to date.
But according to a Spanish academic’s study for The Wall St Journal, quoted by the BBC, editors are leaving Wikipedia faster than they are joining, with a net loss of 49,000 in the first three months of 2009. I know there is a lot of debate about whether this means Wikipedia really is fading, but the idea that people start something with great enthusiasm, then get bored with it, surely comes under the category of the Startlingly Obvious But Not Often Spotted (SOBNOS for the acronym lover).
The problem, it seems to me, is that supply has up to now been adequate, and in places way ahead of demand, but that it will inevitably reduce.
Jimmy Wales, who founded Wikipedia, says the great majority of the edits are done by a few hundred people. They are not paid, and the BBC piece says they are becoming increasingly fed up with the restrictions and rules they have to work under. They are evidently getting bored with doing all this charity work on their computers, and are leaving them to help old ladies across the road instead. But I suspect that even without extra rules, they would get bored. Wikipedia was exciting when it started; it isn’t now. Who will go on writing it and editing it if they don’t get paid?

140 characters in search of a meaning

My SOBNOS theory can also be applied to blogs and Twitter. I increasingly hear people saying they have given up blogging because they prefer to tweet. Why have they stopped writing thoughtful pieces with hundreds of words, to replace them with tweets with a few dozen words? Because writing long pieces is boring; it’s much easier to tweet, even though it is close to impossible to say anything vaguely informative in 140 characters. It’s fun getting those characters counts down. But only for a while.
Twitter will at some point be hit by the boredom effect. I suspect for the moment it’s happening more on the demand than the supply side – many of us are ‘unfollowing’ all but the few people who do provide useful stuff (invariably linking to substantial content). The blatherers are blathering away, but they too will get bored. In an ideal world, Twitter will then consist only of people who get some real benefit out of using it, whether as suppliers or consumers. At that stage, it will have become truly useful.

The end of the beginning is nigh

User-generated content has transformed the internet, largely to the good. But I suspect it’s reaching the end of its first phase – the ‘gosh it’s new and exciting’ era. We will then move to the ‘it’s all a bit boring, is it dying?’ phase, followed, with luck, by the ‘mature and actually quite useful’ stage. It happened like that with websites. So I expect it to happen with social media, too.

First published 02 December, 2009
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