In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of Psychology Mathew Gendle writes about the transitory nature of social media platforms and calls into question the long-term value of investing significant time and resources in creating expansive personal brands on social media. The column was published by the The Virginian-Pilot and the Wilson Times.
By Mathew Gendle
One of the most common and unfortunate lessons about social media is that posted content never really goes away. If a user posts something that is problematic, offensive or embarrassing, that content will likely live on in screenshot infamy, even if the original user quickly removes the post.
This reality has led many users to appropriately treat their shared content as “forever” and assume that what they post on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and other platforms will always be widely viewable and of some importance.
This assumption of permanence is frequently extended to the concept of personal online brands. As a university professor, I frequently encounter career services professionals who strongly encourage students to construct meaningful brands. I know of many folks — students, adult professionals and businesses alike — who have spent countless hours curating what they believe to be the perfect online brand for themselves.
Yet, I have concluded that all this time and effort may not be especially well spent.
Don’t get me wrong — I am not an enemy of social media. These platforms offer valuable spaces for discourse, self-expression and professional development.
Where I think folks, especially younger adults, go wrong is when they assume that what they build for themselves on a social media platform will be there, and of value, essentially forever. It will not.
I feel like a bit of an old codger making this point, but the internet and I have come of age together, and with that perspective, the inherently transitory nature of social media platforms is crystal clear to me.
Users often fail to realize that current popular social media providers (Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok) are just intermediary steps in a much broader continuum of technological evolution. Just as early web browsers Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer were replaced by Chrome, Safari and Firefox, the social media platforms currently in vogue have taken space once held by MySpace, Friendster, Vine and Google Plus.
And there is no reason to believe that the continued evolution of social media in the near and far term will be any different. It seems unlikely that the currently widely used platforms will still hold their privileged positions in five, 10 or 15 years’ time.
At this very moment, we are likely witnessing the beginning of the end for Facebook — a platform that was once a worldwide juggernaut now struggles to attract and retain young adults as users, particularly in the U.S.
So, what does this mean for online personal and professional branding? The big lesson here is that such branding, while clearly of value, should not be at the very forefront of anyone’s long-term professional development plan. It is reasonable to expect that in five to 10 years’ time, 1 million-plus followers on Twitter will have about the same value as what a once-popular MySpace page is now worth in 2022. This transience needs to be factored in to any personal brand-building plan.
The recent erosion of young adult users from Facebook is a cautionary tale for those considering investing significant efforts into cultivating large followings for their personal brands on social media.
So, too, is the recent drama regarding Elon Musk’s proposed purchase of Twitter. This on-again/off-again saga has left many users concerned about the future of the platform, and some have gone as far as to say that they’ll quit Twitter entirely should Musk ultimately gain control of the company. This potential loss of market share is particularly concerning to users who have invested tremendous effort into building a robust brand following on Twitter.
Should the preferences of social media users who, let’s face it, have always been fickle, abruptly shift away from Twitter to a new platform, these efforts will all have been for largely nothing and will have to be restarted on whatever the “next big thing” is.
From my perspective, the social media ecosystem always has been, and will likely continue to be, an inherently unstable space that is sensitive to disruption from both continued technological advancement and the evolving preferences and whims of users.
Spending some time and effort to create an online personal brand is almost certainly worthwhile, but investing countless hours to create content with the specific intent of cultivating a large base of followers on current platforms makes as much sense as building a 20-room mansion on top of a shifting and windswept sand dune.
Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.