Why some social media platforms failed to take off

And the lessons we can learn from these misfires.

digital image of smart devices with colourful networks in the shape of lightbulbs

Wednesday, 7 August, 2019

It’s hard to imagine a world without Twitter or Facebook. These social media sites are so deeply embedded in modern culture that they’ve even inspired Hollywood movies.

Yet the same was once true of Friends Reunited and AOL, whose digitised “you’ve got mail” greeting led to a movie Tom Hanks probably prefers not to talk about these days.

In those heady years either side of the millennium, when the internet was still new and exciting, thousands of corporate ventures promised to bring social nirvana to our screens.

Many of these enterprises subsequently became failed social media platforms – forgotten relics of a bygone age whose name triggers a pang of nostalgia, if little else.

It’s unlikely that Twitter or Instagram will end up as failed social media platforms in the short-term, at least.

That’s because they’ve managed to avoid some of the pitfalls and bear traps which condemned other once-popular portals to the backwaters of history…

Failed social media platforms

Google+. Main problem: Timing.

On paper, Google+ seemed like a good idea, aping the best features of Facebook and harnessing the immense appeal of sister platform YouTube.

Yet Google+ made its UK debut at a time when 26.8 million British citizens were already visiting Facebook every month. Worse, it chose not to invest in significant UK advertising.

Google+ was seven years behind Mark Zuckerberg’s rival site, and offered no innovations to tempt users away. Corporate clients chose to ignore it, and so did everyone else.

Yik Yak. Main problem: Lack of moderation.

The cautionary tale of Yik Yak should give Twitter food for thought, since it was effectively destroyed by design flaws which allowed bullying and extremism to flourish.

Account holders posted content which could be viewed anonymously – and, crucially, interacted with anonymously. Yik Yak was effectively a Mecca for trolls around the world.

This quickly spiralled into threats of terrorism and violence, which Yik Yak was unable or unwilling to tackle. A $400 million business was finished within three years of launching.

Lifestage. Main problem: Small target audience.

It’s commonly claimed that the acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram demonstrate Facebook has a golden touch when it comes to acquiring social media channels.

Yet its many unsuccessful takeovers and in-house failures include Lifestage, a poorly-designed Snapchat rival which was only accessible to under-21s.

Forcing customers to close accounts when they turned 21 hobbled Lifestage’s popularity, especially while sibling platform Instagram (open to anyone over 13) was flourishing.

MySpace. Main problem: Loss of focus.

Social media platforms generally succeed at one thing. Twitter is used for debating current events. Instagram is for posting photos. LinkedIn is for corporate networking. And so forth.

Having flourished as a fairly simple social network, MySpace tried to become all things to all people after News Corporation acquired it. The site became unwieldy and unfocused.

In pursuit of profits, intrusive advertising drowned out user-generated content. The formerly loyal user base deserted in their millions to newer, less revenue-obsessed platforms.

Are there any lessons for today’s consumers?

Social media activity quickly becomes time-consuming and addictive, which means it’s frustrating when chosen platforms wither on the vine or vanish after being taken over.

Millions of people have created profiles and built up networks of friends/followers/fans on different social sites, only to lose everything when those platforms were closed down.

Before signing up to a new service, investigate how it’s used and who its target audience is.

Do its underlying principles (anonymity, debate, image manipulation, etc) appeal to you? Is the site well-moderated? Could you see yourself using it for a number of years?

If the answers to these questions are all positive, then there’s a good chance other people will feel the same – enabling the platform to flourish, rather than fade from view.

Test the water with a basic profile and occasional posts, but don’t make it the sole repository for anything you’d be sorry to lose if the site ceased to exist next year.

Many people have lost irreplaceable memories and media archives in such circumstances…

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!