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2014 columns, Technology

Peak sharing and sustainable ‘Likes’

by Connor Tomas O'Brien , February 10, 2014Leave a comment

Sometime around 1970, oil production peaked in the continental United States. This was perhaps a little surprising, as over the preceding few years, production had continued to increase at a relatively steady rate. The peak wasn’t followed by a sudden decline in production, either. Rather, as it gradually become just a little more cumbersome and a little more expensive to extract oil from the remaining reserves, production fell bit by bit, declining steadily but sluggardly.

When we prognosticate, we tend to be averse to bell curves. We want to believe things will either continue along their current trajectory forever, or crash and burn in a sudden dramatic flash. We don’t want to believe that things can slowly ramp up, reach their zenith, and proceed to gradually ramp back down again.

It’s our aversion to the bell curve that explains why there are two discordant narratives about Facebook – now celebrating its tenth birthday! – floating around. The crash and burn narrative is that Facebook is already ‘dead and buried’ with younger users now ‘embarrassed to even be associated with it’.

The other dominant narrative, presented most definitively in Dave Eggers’ The Circle, is that our use of social media services like Facebook is on track to increase endlessly until ‘the circle completes’ and every component of our lives finds itself safely ensconced inside of Zuckerberg’s data centres.

There’s another option, of course, and it’s neither sexy nor terrifying. What if our use of social media tools just slowly ramps down over time without us really noticing what’s happening? What if, looking back on 2014, we find that we actually hit ‘Peak Sharing’?

It’s almost a certainty that we’re using Facebook now more than ever. As of mid-2013, Facebook’s 1.26 billion users clicked ‘Like’ more than 4.5 billion times daily (for a total of over 1.14 trillion ‘Likes’ since launch). These numbers are incredible, but inside the company, they must also be terrifying, because they signify that the peak must be within reach.

Sure, there are still 5.8 billion people not on Facebook, but they’re 5.8 billion of the hardest people to reach: the very young, the very old, the very poor, the disconnected and culturally and geographically isolated. If you’re not already on Facebook, the time and energy required for Facebook to ‘acquire’ you would now probably outstrip your lifetime value as a potential user.

It’s not exactly reasonable to expect existing users to continue endlessly increasing their interaction with Facebook: ‘Liking’ as a process is virtually impossible to further streamline, and in any case, the value of any single ‘Like’ depreciates as the overall quantity of ‘Likes’ increases (does tapping the ‘Like’ button really mean anything if you’re clicking it so often you can’t remember what you ‘Liked’ five minutes ago?).

Facebook is similar to any resource extraction company, seeking out new reserves to tap and contain. In Facebook’s case, those resources are human time and emotional energy, and because these reserves are limited, ‘Peak Sharing’ is an inevitability.

Facebook’s recent introduction of Paper – an iOS app designed to encourage slower and better sharing – seems to reflect Facebook’s acknowledgement that ‘Peak Sharing’ is probably well within reach. In Paper, only a small amount of content appears on screen at a time, encouraging a more leisurely approach to traversing Facebook’s News Feed. Instead of pushing for increasing the quantity of engagement with Facebook, which is now probably no longer even possible, Paper appears focused on improving the quality of sharing… which is certainly far from peaking.

Paper represents an interesting change of tack for the company, perhaps reminiscent of British Petroleum’s rebranding to ‘Beyond Petroleum’ in the wake of fears of a fast approaching global ‘Peak Oil’ point. If it’s a sure thing that we’ll eventually burn out sharing billions of photos and leaving trillions of comments, in other words, perhaps we’ll find ourselves turning to Facebook to assist us as we ramp down our dependency on non-sustainable ‘Likes’.

Connor Tomas O’Brien is a web designer and co-founder of the ebookstore platform Tomely. 

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