AI Killed the Social Media Star

March 26, 2024

In this NBC News report I was surprised to see not only are the number of daily active users of X declining, but for every other social network than Meta mentioned the trend holds. It may seem like social media has been in decline, but now we have some numbers to show it.

Why It Matters

Social media companies like TikTok have sucked up users, attention, and ad revenue. They started as ways to connect and share things with friends. Then transitioned into a potential way to save the news industry. Now TikTok, Reels, and other social media apps feel like cheap competitors to YouTube, which save for some of its larger properties can feel like a cheap competitor to streaming services like Disney, Max, and Paramount+.

By the Numbers

Social Media is the new Comments Section

Over a decade ago when blogs ruled it was almost sacrosanct that you would have ac comments section. There were some good ones, but eventually they turned into cesspools of harassment and disinformation. In 2013 Popular Science shut down its comments. Years of enduring conspiracy theories, rabbit holes, and other sins have created a death spiral decline in quality and interest. The old adage “don’t read the comments section” has evolved to “did you get that news from TikTok?”.

Can Discord and Reddit Buck the Trend?

Many online communities have migrated to Discord or grown in Reddit. I think federations of smaller communities is an interesting bet in this space. However when it comes to discussion and content quality they all suffer from a regression to the mean. As more people join and contribute, the quality of the posts, content, and discussion seems to decline.

What AI Will Do To It?

Before ChatGPT the posting of queries into online forums and discussion groups served as a signal and prompt to others that there was interest in a topic. Experts and enthusiasts would get social clout (or Klout!) from answering these, even if they were repetitive, and more higher quality content would be generated. In an era of blogs and forums this lead to large swaths of novel answers to the same question to be generated, posted, and indexed. Search traffic for the same questions drove more audience to these sites that then lead to more ad revenue to support them. The open web was a positive flywheel.

On the web and social media marketers have flooded the zone with bad or mediocre content. An expert write-up might not get as many upvotes as a drawn out post with lots of keywords, or a social media post with visual media of a sexualized “expert” will beat out the interesting or helpful one. In response users are deploying tools like ChatGPT to ask and answer their questions and cut through the junk. The result is now less signal. Sites like StackOverflow are seeing less traffic.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.