Social Internet and the Retail Apocalypse

There’s a half-formed idea in my head that’s trying to draw a parallel between the retail apocalypse and the #DeleteFacebook movement. To briefly recap both, a large number of retail chains in the United States are either closing stores to consolidate operations, or going out of business entirely. Many factors have led to this, and I’ll get to the ones relevant to my point in a moment. A lot of people are deleting Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica kerfuffle, but there have always been criticisms and concerns about the social network.

These seem like opposite things, on the surface. Some people are mourning the loss of certain retail stores, mostly from a sense of nostalgia and convenience. While some of those stores are going under due to mismanagement, many are folding because sales are down. If people were still dropping money at those beloved stores, they would still be up and running.

Facebook, on the other hand, is healthy and strong and mostly meeting peoples’ needs. There are annoying things about the interface and the timeline, but folks still get value from it. What they’re concerned about mostly is their privacy, and how Facebook is using their data. They want to continue using the service, but they’re troubled about how their personal information is being used.

What’s happening in both instances, I think, is that people are figuring out that economies of scale aren’t a universal truth. Bigger is not always better. A common denominator that I see is the pursuit of profit, and the way that it drives companies to do things outside of their core work in order to make that coin.

I run a small business. I’m self-employed. While I could be bigger, doing so would make me unhappy. It would require longer hours, and the additional profit wouldn’t be worth the things in my life that I’d have to give up in order to do the additional work required. At some point it would also require me to do work that I’m not necessarily good at, which would not only make me miserable but could result in disappointed customers. As long as the bills get paid and I enjoy what I’m doing, I’m happy. I also don’t have shareholders.

Corporations exist to make a profit for their shareholders. This means that they need to continually be growing. Store need to open more locations. New products and services have to be added constantly. Profits have to increase year over year, quarter after quarter. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.

Facebook makes that coin off of your user data. Most of the time it’s just used to hit you with advertising that’s relevant to your interests, so you’ll click and buy. Fairly standard behavior, a little insidious and creepy sometimes, but we still have free will. We can choose not to click a link or purchase a thing. It becomes problematic when we start to lose the ability to choose, as when Facebook allows third parties to use that data for purposes other than supporting or improving our Facebook experience.

Constant growth means that these business eventually begin to collapse under their own weight. It costs money to become competent at one thing, let alone at dozens of things. When they lose the core of what they do, they lose their focus. When they lose their focus, they begin to lose interest. I remember when Barnes & Noble started shifting from being a bookstore to having a solid third of their floor space dedicated to gifts, toys, and games. I didn’t go there for that stuff. I went there for books, they were good at selling books, and I resented having the wade through that crap to get to the books. As they shifted focus to compensate for declining sales, they increasingly became less good at selling books.

It’s not that different from going to Facebook wanting to see your friends and the pages you’ve chosen to follow, and getting a non-chronological timeline and a bunch of suggested content. That’s not what I’m there for. I know why they have to do it, but it isn’t what I want. It is not the satisfying experience that it once was.

The answer, I think, is going to be small. If we want cheap and unsatisfying, we can order things online. If we want expertise, customer service, and high-touch, there will be small, boutique-style businesses to cater to that. They will cost more, and people will grumble, but it might be worth it. Small book stores are doing okay in the United States, as are many small toy stores in the wake of Toy’R’Us declaring bankruptcy. I think that the exodus back to blogs, forums, and smaller start-up social media platforms will continue.

This isn’t an either-or situation. There will be both. Walmart and Amazon will continue to satisfy the desire for cheap and mass, while a local shop will cater to your need for personal and human. Facebook won’t go away, because it’s where you will find everyone, like a town square or an old-fashioned phone book, but after you’ve found people you’ll take your conversation somewhere more private.

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