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Many of us are keen to embrace the newest tech panacea, whether it’s a new drug or a new app. That is, until we find out that it is disrupting an ecosystem or society at large. It often takes years for those unintended consequences to show up and by the time we can prove deleterious effects, they are often irreversible.

That’s an important takeaway from Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, which remains one of the more insightful books I’ve read on technology and its effects.

We’re now starting to see more clearly some of the consequences of our infatuation with social media. And there are indications that we’re beginning to disengage from some of the key social channels.

Facebook is the most important social platform that higher ed uses to engage with its constituents: 99 percent of institutions use Facebook. A majority say that recent news about privacy and security issues with the platform won’t influence their use of it. And while a quarter report that they’ve seen a decline in engagement on Facebook, even more (34 percent) say they don’t know whether engagement has declined or not and 41 percent haven’t seen a decrease. [These figures are from a survey we launched in partnership with CASE in June; we’re still analyzing the results.]
Declining consumer confidence and disengagement is bound to affect how constituents respond to Facebook posts and other content over time, affecting how higher ed approaches this important channel

For example, while I know that one can’t trust anecdotal evidence, I’ve heard a lot of friends and acquaintances say they’re losing interest in Facebook. Last week, I was surprised to hear that a close family member — who posted a lot of content and was engaged in an extensive friend and family network on Facebook — closed her account.

Little of the recent news about Facebook is good news, whether it’s continued concern over Russian use of the platform to influence the upcoming mid-term elections or headlines like this one from The Wall Street Journal: “Facebook to Banks: Give Us Your Data, We’ll Give You Our Users," which sparked a lot of snark along the lines of "What could possibly go wrong with Facebook users getting information from their banks via Messenger?”

Bad news for Twitter, too

Though some higher ed leaders — presidents, deans, and others — who are active on social media post on Facebook and Instagram, most use Twitter.

Influential critics and commentators are taking a close look at how they -- and we -- are using Twitter. In general, they're not enamored of what they observe. In part, that’s because the most visible and controversial politician in the US has weaponized Twitter, drawing attention not only to the platform itself but to the large and active number of users who use it to troll others anonymously.

I’ll confess that I’ve recently found Twitter to be less helpful and engaging myself. While I haven’t left the platform completely, I haven’t signed on in months. Even the active #highered community that remains isn’t enough of an incentive to invigorate my participation.

Ezra Klein, in an post titled, “The problem with Twitter, as shown by the Sarah Jeong fracas,” wrote,

Twitter is not your friend. It is built to reward us for snarky in-group communication and designed to encourage unintended out-group readership. It fosters both tribalism and tribal collision. It seduces you into thinking you’re writing for one community but it gives everyone the ability to search your words and project them forward in time and space and outward into another community at the point when it’ll do you maximum damage. It leaves you explaining jokes that can’t be explained to employers that don’t like jokes anyway.

He concludes his essay with the admonition: “But for now, the lesson is clear: #NeverTweet.”

And an increasing number of high-profile users are doing just that, leaving Twitter. When Maggie Haberman, the New York Times reporter, exited the platform (after 187,000 tweets!), she explained,

The viciousness, toxic partisan anger, intellectual dishonesty, motive-questioning and sexism are at all-time highs, with no end in sight. It is a place where people who are understandably upset about any number of things go to feed their anger, where the underbelly of free speech is at its most bilious.

Growing dissatisfaction overall

Tellingly, perhaps, American Customer Satisfaction Index’s (ACSI®) 2018 E-Business Report noted in July that “Customer satisfaction with social media as a whole falls 1.4 percent to a score of 72 on the ACSI’s 100-point scale, ranking it among the bottom five of all industries measured by ACSI, and the lowest of the three e-business categories.”

One reason for the decline is advertising — and especially autoplay video, which isn’t going away any time soon, despite being despised by everyone — except advertisers.

I’m cautious about making any predictions about how fast this disenchantment with social media will spread. And, indeed, a recent report from the Pew Research Center indicates that 68 percent of American adults use Facebook.

But teens are often considered the trend-setters in the use of technology. And if you look at what they’re doing, the picture is dynamic and interesting. Teens have already moved away from Facebook to YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. That’s in part because they prefer platforms where they can control who sees their content.

We’ll see whether adults, too, become more cautious about their use of social media — and whether we become truly disenchanted with Facebook and Twitter over the next year or so.

Michael Stoner is a co-founder and president of mStoner, Inc., a digital marketing firm serving higher education.

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