Home / Opinion / Columns /  How social network empires are going the way of the Roman empire

Is it the end of the Social Network 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 who won against Liz Truss has been put on show again, this time against the blue Twitter bird. Facebook, and its mother company, seems to be inching towards terminal decline – stock down 70%, user growth stagnant, and the youngsters, on whom the networks feed on, deserting the platform. The Empires seem to be floundering. “The story of its ruin is simple and obvious", wrote Edward Gibbon writing of another empire, “and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long." Gibbon wrote a six-volume treatise on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but what his insights on its decay can well be applied to the Social Network empires of Twitter and Facebook. “After a diligent inquiry", he wrote, “I can discern four principal causes of the ruin of Rome: I. The injuries of time and nature. II. The hostile attacks of the Barbarians and Christians. III. The use and abuse of the materials. And IV. The domestic quarrels of the Romans." These four, I believe, can well be applied to the decline of the social network twins.

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One, the injuries of time and nature: The dark secret of social networks is that they can be great, money printing machines as long as they are 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 connected users of the system. Thus, networks grow exponentially, but when new users stop coming in, they stagnate and then decline. Before Facebook and Twitter, other social networks “walked the earth" – Six Degrees, Hi5, Orkut, MySpace, Google+. As users moved on to newer networks with the passage of time and preferences, they became ghost towns. Facebook is facing 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 seem to be more self-inflicted, as Musk takes a hatchet to it and drives away its very lifeblood, the advertisers.

Two, the Hostile attacks of the Barbarians and Christians: The Barbarians at the Facebook gate is indubitably Tiktok as it snatches away both the younger users and their attention. The business model of social networks monetizes attention and intention, and the Attention Economy is shifting firmly to TikTok, as it becomes the most downloaded app and has users reportedly spending 10x the time on it compared to Facebook. Alarik 1 was the king of Barbarians, who was the nemesis of the Roman empire; for the empire of Twitter he seems to be reborn as Elon Musk, singlehandedly battling to hew the network in his own image. The other barbarian swarm are the bots, which are undermining the very heart of Twitter’s model. For the Empires, it is not only the Barbarians, it is the Christians too: the deathblow to Facebook might have come from none other than Apple with its iOS version 14.5. This required users to give explicit content for device-based and user-level data monitoring by apps (like Facebook), this hammer strike resulted in a $10bn in lost advertising revenue, nearly 9% of its total 2021 revenue.

Three, the use and abuse of materials: Mark Zuckerberg has spent close to $13bn of his company’s money to evangelize and build the Metaverse, with nothing to show of it in revenue or users. Investors and analysts are enraged, as they witness what they think is an open abuse of his majoritarian power. Zuckerberg has his reasons – he wants to escape the tyranny of Apple and Google’s app platforms, he wants the younger users back, and he wants to leave a legacy beyond his floundering social network. Musk too seems to have his reasons, as he himself ‘abuses’ the power of his 115mn followers on his own network, and his sole ownership of it.

Four, the domestic quarrels of the Romans: Musk has shed more than half his staff and fired everyone who quarreled with him. His two-day ultimatum to employees resulted in the company hanging by a thread. Zuckerberg is notorious for brooking no dissent – his purges of his original co-founders, his top lieutenants, the founders of the companies he acquired, and, reportedly, of his second-in-command are well known.

It is quite possible that both emerge triumphant, and the reports of their deaths might be greatly exaggerated. “Great empires are not maintained by timidity.", said the Roman historian Tacitus, and the new Emperors are being anything but.

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

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