Social Media Empires Go the Way of the Roman Empire

Is it the end of the social media empire? Twitter is in disarray, with advertisers fleeing the network and users constantly refreshing their feeds to check if it still exists. The famous lettuce that beat Liz Truss has been put on the scene again, this time against the blue bird of Twitter. Facebook and its parent company appear to be inching toward the decline of the terminals: shares are down 70%, user growth has stalled, and the young people who feed the networks are leaving the platform. Empires seem to be tottering. “The story of its ruin is simple and obvious,” Edward Gibbon wrote of another empire, “and instead of asking why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should be surprised that it has lasted so long.” Gibbon wrote a six-volume treatise on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but his insights into its decline may well apply to the social media empires of Twitter and Facebook. “After diligent investigation,” he wrote, “I can discern four principal causes of Rome’s ruin: I. The injuries of time and nature. II. Hostile attacks by barbarians and Christians. III. The use and abuse of materials and IV the domestic disputes of the Romans. These four, I think, may well apply to the decline of the social media twins.

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One, the wounds of time and nature: The dark secret of social media is that it can be great money-printing machines as long as it’s cool, and as long as all your cool friends are there. They grow and thrive on network effects, governed by Metcalfe’s Law that the value of a communications network is proportional to the square of the number of users connected to the system. Thus, networks grow exponentially, but when new users stop entering, they stagnate and then decline. Before Facebook and Twitter, other social networks “walked the earth”: Six Degrees, Hi5, Orkut, MySpace, Google+. As users moved to newer networks over time and preferences, they became ghost towns. Facebook is dealing with that: For the first time, daily active users dropped by half a million, and its teen and young adult users have been declining since 2013. Twitter’s injuries appear to be more self-inflicted, as Musk attacks it with an ax and drives him away. advertisers

Two, the hostile attacks by barbarians and Christians: The barbarians at Facebook’s door are undoubtedly Tiktok, as it grabs both younger users and their attention. The social media business model monetizes attention and intent, and the attention economy is shifting steadily towards TikTok as it becomes the most downloaded app and users reportedly spend 10x more time in it compared to Facebook. Alarik 1 was the king of the barbarians, who was the nemesis of the Roman empire; to the Twitter empire he seems to be reborn as Elon Musk, single-handedly fighting to mold the network in his own image. The other swarm of barbarians are the bots, which are undermining the very heart of the Twitter model. For empires, it’s not just the barbarians, it’s also the Christians: the fatal blow to Facebook could have come from none other than Apple with its iOS 14.5 version. This required users to provide explicit content for user-level and device-based data monitoring by apps (like Facebook), this hammer blow resulted in a $10 billion loss in ad revenue, nearly 9 % of their total revenue in 2021.

Three, the use and abuse of materials: Mark Zuckerberg has spent close to $13 billion of his company’s money to evangelize and build the Metaverse, with nothing to show for it in revenue or users. Investors and analysts are infuriated as they witness what they believe to be an open abuse of their majority power. Zuckerberg has his own reasons: He wants to escape the tyranny of Apple’s and Google’s app platforms, he wants to bring younger users back and he wants to leave a legacy beyond his shaky social network. Musk also seems to have his reasons, since he himself ‘abuses’ the power of his 115 million followers on his own network and his exclusive property.

Fourth, the domestic feuds of the Romans: Musk has parted ways with more than half of his staff and fired everyone who fought with him. His two-day ultimatum to the employees resulted in the company hanging by a thread. Zuckerberg is known for not tolerating dissent: the purges of his original co-founders, his top lieutenants, the founders of companies he acquired, and his reported second-in-command are well known. .

Both may very well emerge triumphant, and reports of their deaths may be greatly exaggerated. “Great empires are not maintained out of timidity”, said the Roman historian Tacitus, and the new emperors are doing just the opposite.

Jaspreet Bindra is the founder of Tech Whisperer Ltd, a technology advisory and digital transformation practice.

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