“If you study social media at a high level long enough, you will start to see patterns. Seeing enough patterns enables you to predict potential outcomes for the lifespan of social media platforms. Over the years since the birth of the internet, we have witnessed the closure of numerous platforms — a valley of dead social platforms like Friendster, Vine, and Myspace. While you can still visit Myspace today, it is a hollow husk of its former potential. A few years ago, I began writing about the similarities shared by all social platforms and the cycles they undergo, which determine their success or failure. I referred to it as the Social Media Life Cycle.
The recent launch of Threads, a Twitter competitor created by social media giant Meta, a company that once attempted to acquire Twitter, seems well-timed. Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk, recently announced limitations on the amount of content users can consume. This can be interpreted as a significant indication that a metaphorical nail is being hammered into the wall, potentially signaling the closure of Twitter’s door. However, we will have to wait and see if this actually transpires. If there is one thing a social media company should avoid, it is restricting its users’ platform usage if they aim to foster growth. These events all align with specific stages within the Social Media Life Cycle.
The cycle as a whole
To simplify the Social Media Life Cycle, I have broken it down into four phases, each with specific requirements based on the company’s relationship with public consumption. These stages depend on the health of usage and the financial state of the company. By understanding these phases, we can determine where a social media company stands within the life cycle. Additionally, this framework has enabled me to identify trend shifts and make reasonably accurate predictions in the past.
Phase 1 — Launch (Conception, Start-Up, and Launch)
Every social media company is either initiated by an ambitious entrepreneur aiming to disrupt the market by addressing social media-related challenges or is a new product developed by an already established company. When a social platform is being constructed, going through a pivot, or raising funds to enter the market, it is in phase one of the cycle. This initial stage often involves addressing early pain points before the market fully embraces the platform’s potential impact. On the other hand, if a well-established company launches a new social media platform, it essentially resets the cycle, and the new product commences its own journey within the life cycle.
Phase 2 — Cliff Jump (Market Introduction or Pivot)
The second phase of the Social Media Life Cycle revolves around the public’s decision regarding the platform’s potential longevity. After a platform is fully launched, it becomes crucial to rapidly build up an audience or user base in order to drive services or advertising. Failing to do so can result in insufficient financial backing to sustain growth, cover operational costs, or maintain advertising efforts long enough to establish a prominent position in the social media landscape. I refer to this phase as the “cliff jump” because once a platform experiences a significant launch, it becomes exceedingly challenging to pivot the platform’s overall direction beyond this point.
Phase 3 — The Long Play (Growth Up, Burn Out, or Buy Out)
Phase 3 of the Social Media Life Cycle is where successfully launched social media platforms either thrive or falter. Once a platform has established a user base, it must continue to exhibit growth and provide compelling social reasons for users to keep returning. This allows the platform to effectively deliver ads to viewers or maintain a market for their services, ensuring their survival. However, if a platform fails to sustain this growth for an extended period, it will experience a decline, causing users to abandon it and leading to an inevitable downward spiral of irrelevance. Platforms must continuously grow in order to progress to Phase 4. Depending on various circumstances, such as favorable or unfavorable conditions, a social media platform may be sold to a competitor or a company seeking to incorporate a new social media presence into their business.
Phase 4 — Critical Mass (Too Big to Fail, or Death)
When a social media company reaches critical mass, it signifies that it has reached the maximum number of users it can statistically acquire based on various factors such as location, internet accessibility, and the platform’s relevance in the target market. Meta serves as a prime example of this phenomenon. From 2008 to 2021, they experienced exponential growth, reaching nearly 3 billion users — an astonishing achievement for a social media platform. However, since 2021 to 2023, their user growth has slowed significantly, with an addition of only around 50 million users. This slowdown prompted Facebook to rebrand itself as Meta, aiming to maintain relevance in the future.
Reaching critical mass presents challenges for a social media company. Slowing down growth can lead investors to explore more promising opportunities, potentially affecting the company’s financial stability. To counter this, companies may choose to venture into new avenues by starting new companies in order to continue expanding. Meta’s launch of Threads serves as a perfect example of this strategy. As a once-small tech company that has grown into a massive entity, Meta is now starting new social media companies to grow laterally, exploring new avenues for continued expansion.
Social media plays a significant role in the second generation of the internet, commonly known as the Social Age, which emerged around 2005. It is important to differentiate this era from the first generation, known as the Information Age or web1. The third generation, referred to as web3 or the Immersive Age, is characterized by immersive experiences and technologies. Within the Immersive Age, the concept of the Metaverse is expected to emerge as a by-product. It is worth noting that Facebook’s decision to change its name to Meta is a reference to this anticipated evolution toward the Metaverse.
Understanding the Social Media Life Cycle allows us to recognize the patterns and stages that social media platforms undergo. From their inception in the Social Age to the bleeding edge immersive experiences of the soon-to-be Immersive Age, social media has become a defining component of the second generation of the internet. By observing the Social Media Life Cycle, we can gain insights into the future trajectory of social media platforms, allowing us to predict trends and make informed projections. As we continue to navigate this ever-evolving digital landscape, it is essential to embrace innovation and adaptability, both as users and industry participants helping decide which social platforms are worthy of our participation.