In 1971 Harvard Psychology Professor B. F. Skinner(1904-1990) published his landmark and very annoying book “Beyond Freedom and Dignity.” For many, this book was annoying because it challenged the concept of free will – and we kinda like to think that our actions are our own choices – not preprogrammed choices. I mean it is rather annoying to think that someone could ultimately create a mathematical model of behaviour that could predict human action. Beyond the visceral reaction, I found it annoying for another reason. I could accept that fact that there were inputs and that laws governed how a psychological system dealt with this inputs and led us to an inevitable output. But, we had already learned from physics that while, for instance, Newton’s laws could predict how the molecule of a balloon filled with helium interacted, provided you knew the starting condition, that the system was ultimately so complicated that we needed statistical mechanics to explain it, and statistical mechanics ultimately provided only randomness and probabilities. Behavioural systems had to be perhaps even more complicated. Even if in principle they were totally deterministic; in practice they were statistical – that effectively there would be free will.
Well all this aside, there is something truly insulting about the view that mathematics can predict our behaviour. Well, a team of scientists at Princeton have done just that. They have modeled the rise and fall of Facebook with mathematical models designed to study viral disease epidemics. The prediction made by these models is that Facebook will lose 80% of its subscribers by 2015-2018. This must be doubly insulting to the folks at Facebook. Not only do they face imminent demise, but they are being likened to a disease. And if you look at the meteoric rise and fall of MySpace and compare the latest data for Facebook, things really aren’t looking that rosy.
The company admitted in October that its teen base is declining. And a study by IStrategy Labs indicates that Facebook had 25 percent fewer teenage users in 2013 compared to 2011. When this reached the news last fall, I heard a teen being questioned about it and she blamed the infestation of Facebook with adults. She pointed out that when she posts a picture of herself, she wants her friends to say how pretty she looks, not her parents’ friends to say how much she looks like her mother. Hmm! The teens are moving on, not away from social networks, but to other forms and forums of social connection. As the Princeton study points out:
“Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological model … Idea manifesters ultimately lose interest with the idea and no longer manifest the idea, which can be thought of as the gain of “immunity” to the idea.”
We have spoken before about technologies that represent true quantum leaps and what I have referred to as transitional technologies – ones that are short-lived and bridge a gap. Social media is, I think, something different. It has been made possible by major technological advances: e.g. computers and the internet. But it is itself more an amorphous concept or meme than a physical thing. Still I believe that social media is here to stay and is truly transforming the world. But the specific vehicle, or is it merely a product, is very short-lived.