About a year ago, I began researching an idea for a new business. I had an inkling that our affair with social media was going through a rocky patch, and so I sat down in a Borough Market coffee house with a group of young people and asked them about their own social networking habits.
My sample was made up of Millennials, born into the digital age, yet many complained about the intrusion of irrelevant information that had begun to dominate their newsfeeds. From Candy Crush requests to political rants, baby pictures and cheesy motivational quotes, "It's just become inane... even meaningless", said one.
I wanted to explore further: was this the beginnings of a crisis of relevance for the social media giants? In my years as the Head of BBC iPlayer, and later as the founder of social TV app Beamly (previously Zeebox), I learnt that while anecdotes can lead to powerful insight, the litmus test is always provided by data. So I set out to test my hypothesis: are social networks struggling for relevance?
Working with research house YouGov, we asked 2,000 UK consumers how they felt about the time they spent on the biggest sites. The results were compelling. A whopping 48% said that at least half of the posts we see on social networks every day are 'irrelevant'. (For the purposes of the study, I defined 'irrelevant' as 'posts about things you don't care about or are indifferent to). Think about it: that means half the information we receive is noise.
How did this make users feel? According to the data, the answer is largely disengagement. Almost a third said they felt 'bored', while 27% were 'irritated'.
Next, the million dollar question: which social network featured the highest number of irrelevant posts? No contest. Facebook won hands down with 68% of the vote.
Don't let the growing ad revenues and global reach fool you; the big social networks are facing an existential crisis. Although advertising partners love their size and scale, users are starting to kick back at how noisy and unsatisfying the experience has become.
Intriguingly, the results from my research were even more striking amongst Millennials, of whom 58% (against 48% average across all age ranges) believe at least half of their daily posts are irrelevant. This is a bellwether audience when it comes to the battle for hearts and minds online, and on this evidence at least, it's a battle that the traditional social networks are losing.
Globally, the average age of Facebook users is 29 - still borderline Millennial, but the figure is skewed heavily by countries in which access to Facebook and access to the internet are often the same thing. For balance, the average age of Facebook users in the US is over 40 - good news perhaps for advertisers looking to reach bigger spenders, but bad news for the network's ongoing relevance. What will your Facebook feed look like five years from now?
Over the past twelve months, a host of hyper-targeted networks has emerged. These sites are on a positive growth curve and can demonstrate a much closer and more engaged relationship with their users. These networks, like my latest venture 6Tribes, are being built for a new generation of social networkers - users who expect content and conversations to be tailored to their interests, and to meet people who share their interests and passions. In our app for example, we're seeing engagement levels skyrocket within dedicated 'tribes' of people on weird and wonderful topics like Wanderlusters, Star Gazers, Kung Foodies, even Sleuthers for murder mystery fanatics.
By contrast, while Facebook is far from dead, it appears stuck in an alternate reality of generic, all-purpose content - too self-serving for larger audiences and too broad for smaller ones.
6Tribes is free to download on the App Store: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/6tribes/id979286265?mt=8