The Life and Death of Social Networks

downwardAre social networks an affliction from which we must recover?

A recent study likened social networks to an infectious disease, predicting Facebook would lose 80% of users by 2017.

Describing a pattern doesn’t necessarily mean you can apply it to specific cases, but at the very least, early evidence shows that some social networks have a life span. Is the lifespan of a social network a fixed number, a fixed pattern? Could we see the same problem for successful healthcare social networks like PatientsLikeMe? What would cause a short lifespan of a network if it’s like a disease? How might we find symbiosis over killing the host?

Real-world networks and communities begin to wither when shared resources are depleted. A map of recent migrations within the United States shows a net migration out of the rust belt, which one could infer from the loss of jobs and infrastructure, and long-term value in living there compared to the manufacturing boom of the last century.

Some towns turn into ghost towns, while some real-world communities can last for centuries. How do we determine what makes them sustainable for our cities and also for the new health care networks we are building? To find the answer, let’s first look at why social networks die.

Why Do Social Networks Die?

When we sign up for a an online social network, the perceived benefits are usually readily apparent and the perceived risks are low.

When signing up for Facebook, I remember thinking, “great, a semi-private place to connect with people I know and see what’s happening.”

But Facebook quickly began sharing things to broaden my network and made content I’ve provided more and more public, rather than private or even semi-private as I had intended. It is still, despite complaints and bad press, unclear for most users what’s shared on Facebook, and user timelines have become cluttered with commercial messages, images, and ads.

Will Facebook will find a middle ground between individual and commercial messages, a kind of symbiosis between users, network and sponsors?

Perhaps they already have. There are still some great valuable conversations that take place (which makes it hard to leave–it’s the only communication channel for some individuals), but the many risks (sharing too much with a wider circle, wasting time, seeing unwanted ads) continue to grow, while the benefits get watered down.

An obvious factor  that can kill a social network is having the wrong balance between content creators, consumers and payers of content, particularly in a public company driven by earnings calls. The network wants to promote the paid content while consumers want to see content from friends and trusted sources — the reason they signed up in the first place. These forces are typically in opposition.

This is not a new problem. Television long ago learned that people could withstand eight minutes of commercials during a 30-minute sitcom, and now there are much better analytics for online social behavior. I suspect Facebook has or will find their “22 minutes” of content, which is one of the lessons of sustainability. If Facebook starts losing their core asset — user attention — they should be able to measure it and adjust.

I’d argue as Facebook has become more public, it has shifted to more of a broadcast medium than a conversation. Maybe that’s a natural evolution, but in the long run it may also kill the network.

My recommendations for social network sustainability.

1. Find the right mix of paid and user-generated content. Measure and adjust.

Our mental and social life, our interests and attention, have become an asset for other “organisms” — the company that runs the network and the advertisers (admittedly, I am one). The natural evolution is to find ways to leverage that asset as commercial entities, but it will inevitably turn some of that interest and attention away. The goal is to find the 8 minutes.

If a network breaks past the “8-minute mark” the benefits begin to drift away and it can become an exponential kind of reaction where the network dies.

To be sustainable, social networks need to derive some value, but first they must find ways to sustain participation and to continue measuring as they go.

2. Enable user ownership and the right level of privacy

The old adage was that “everyone seems to care about privacy except the users,” but that’s changing. Users are seeking out more private and personal alternatives and even Facebook has been trying to buy it’s way into private communications. Buying trust, however, is impossible to purchase.

Whatsapp founders believe(d) strongly in respecting user’s privacy. Their founder has said in a somewhat defensive post about the acquisition: “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible.”

Facebook also had an unsuccessful attempt to acquire SnapChat, a service built around the very notion of private communication. Will we feel secure in a Facebook virtual reality if privacy isn’t respected?

Explore with your users which conversations and communications require different expectations of privacy and the right granularity of privacy. The best way to get it right is to keep these policies as open and transparent as possible. Twitter is very public, it’s all out there. People go to twitter for the express function of finding new people and information that’s aligned with their interests. Because it’s open, twitter users likely won’t pay with anything other than their participation.

Doximity has proven success by maintaining control of who can access the network. They know what patients want and expect, and what they will be willing to trade for a loss of privacy.

3. Build knowledge creation and flow

Nobody goes onto social media to see ads (accept the advertisers). We go there to get something we want. Early on that’s communication, but the communication level will inevitably become more specific and granular as relationships form and grow.

I have long thought, and have written since 2009, that the early days of social networking would be the social days, the next phase would be the “getting things done” phase, finding new ways, once we’ve found each other, to collaborate effectively, creating shared value.

According to social network expert Simon Terry:

“The challenge of a networked era is no longer gathering a stock of knowledge. The challenge is leverage rapid flights of knowledge and guiding others through networked knowledge creation. The skills that rise to the fore are not those of hoarding a stock of knowledge. The skills are those of being able to connect people, share capability and create new knowledge together.”

Look for this to be the next phase of social networks, and what we already see with Doximity and PatientsLikeMe, networks devoted to knowledge sharing and knowledge building.

Healthcare social networks that survive will continue leveraging rapid flights of real-time information and feedback, providing answers and guiding others through networked knowledge creation, and I’ll look for it to happen right up to the point of care. Social networks in the next generation will be increasingly focused on finding answers and coordinating activities, allowing users to continuously create and build value.

4: Give users a long-term stake in their network, and in their health

We must perform mental calculus to find the correct balance of time invested and the value we receive from networks like Facebook and twitter. It’s not easy or consistent math, but it gets easier when the rewards for participating are clear over the long term.

PatientsLikeMe works because it was always centered on delivering value in return for personal data, and people go the extra mile to share their information because the personalized data is very high in value. People want to get better.

What would it take for people to really get involved in social health care when healthy? What would a broad health social network need to succeed? Will emerging networks of sensors like those Apple will be enabling drive a need for a health social network for healthy people? Herein lies the quest for the next level of health social networks, allowing people to get healthy faster, doing it together over the long term.

PLM users do have a long-term stake because information about their health is involved. What value will healthy people require in return? Fitness? Weight loss? Cash? If a social network can be shown to deliver over the long term, it will reap rewards.


Much like a virus or an infectious disease, there is always temptation for networks to reach a bit far, with the potential to kill their hosts. Successful healthcare social networks will recognize that they need to create value and that this value will lower overall network risk.

We will continue to grow many successful healthcare social networks beyond Doximity and PatientsLikeMe. Surveys show 90% of Internet users want to access their doctor online. We want to communicate to get answers, and social networks will increasingly be how we do it.

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Leonard is Principal and Co-Founder at VivaPhi, an agency that solves multi-disciplinary business problems involving data science, software, biomedical science, behavioral science, health care, product design, community development, marketing, consumer engagement and organizational design. He has been quoted in Forbes and other top-tier publications for thought leadership on patient and consumer engagement. In addition to his role at VivaPhi, he is Chair of the Marketing and Communications Group for the Collaborative Health Consortium. Prior to VivaPhi he held the position of Vice President of Operations at Capitis Healthcare International as well as executive positions with several startups. He started his career as a software requirements analyst on Qwest Communication’s highest priority IT project while earning a triad of advanced degrees from the University of Colorado. These included an MBA, a Master’s of Science in Information Systems and a Master’s in Biomedical Sciences (Thesis on System Dynamics in Parkinson’s Disease). Leonard earned a Bachelor’s in Zoology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He’s interested in how systems evolve, and how to help them evolve, in a variety of unique contexts. Connect with Leonard: @leonardkish, LinkedIn and Google+