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In Social Media, Worlds Are Colliding

Yahoo! Finance
The Exchange

By Stephanie Grayson, Y! Finance social media editor

On social media these days, users are increasingly experiencing a strong feeling of Déjà vu.

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"Funny running into you here, search capability with #hashtags! Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?"

"Hey, social media replies and mentions, I think I remember you from another time on another network!"

The social media universe has become accustomed to not a week going by without one of the networks releasing an update or announcing an enhancement or new feature. But what is particularly interesting lately is the level of overlap.

During the much media-hyped introduction of Facebook (FB) Home last week, social media watchers got a front-row view of a large network trying to aggressively position itself as a one-stop shop. With Home, Facebook offers not only the features it is historically known for but also other familiar services; hence, the need for a user to log off and go elsewhere is lessened. This is just on the heels of Facebook’s new Graph Search, which Google (GOOG) is likely noting with interest.

'Log on and stay on'

And Facebook is certainly not the only large social media network attempting to get users to "log on and stay on."

Recently LinkedIn (LNKD) announced not only improved search but also a rollout of Facebookesque/Twitteresque “mentions.” Not satisfied with being just a place for search, Google has also been rolling out a series of new capabilities in an ongoing effort to make its Google Plus (G+) community more attractive to a broader audience; Google+ Hangouts is, in particular, enjoying some popularity. Twitter has released many updates and enhancements and is basking in the buzz of its new Vine video service, now also available with hashtags.

“The average consumer only uses one or two social media platforms for personal and perhaps for business networking," says Tonia Ries, founder and editor of the Realtime Report. "That’s not going to change. Social networks are adding me-too features to prevent these average users from defecting to a rival platform.”

This aggressive jockeying for position amongst social media networks can be partly attributed to Facebook and LinkedIn becoming accountable to shareholders. Once a company enters the public realm, as Facebook did – disastrously – last year and LinkedIn did in 2011, shareholders start lobbying for a return. (Google has been public since 2004.)

But stock prices aside, what does this constant change mean for consumers? Confusion and frustration, for starters.

Keeping up with changes

“Consumers are definitely finding it hard to keep up with the changes in technologies on social networks,” says Howard Greenstein, marketing technology strategist at Harbrooke Group and president of the Social Media Club’s NYC chapter. “We see outcries every time there are interface changes on Facebook. People are generally creatures of habit, and constant upgrades are not what they’re used to.”

Ric Dragon, CEO and co-founder of DragonSearch digital marketing agency, as well as the author of Social Marketology, says these changes are part of what he calls “feature Darwinism.”

According to Dragon, “New social features are being developed and rolled out. Those that resonate with people will get replicated.”

“The design patterns of social media are still undergoing changes,” he adds. “The norms haven’t been totally established...the major platforms are competing with one another, so as one feature is designed and developed, if it makes sense, the other platform is going to roll it out as well.”

What's in store?

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Will consumers of social media, both at work and at home, become increasingly fatigued by all the changes and updates? Will consumer social networking behavior be dramatically altered due to these multiple changes/updates?

“What’s far more likely to change consumer behavior on social media are broader cultural or demographic trends," Says Ries. "Teens never want to be at the same party as their parents.”

It may be a losing play for social media networks to increasingly attempt to be "all things to all people," especially since most of them grew their user base in the first place by being more niche. The risk is there that users will get turned off if they feel pushed into using a social network in a way that is not their natural inclination.

In certain cases, if the outcry from users is large and loud enough, social media networks do feel compelled to address it. One example: Twitter added the ability to search #hashtag history after complaints that only the most recent hashtags could be searched. Now there are beginnings of negative sentiment about Facebook comments and posts being shown out of chronological order, as "weighting" pushes the most popular and/or sponsored posts to the top spots. Stay tuned to see if Facebook addresses that.

Overall, with the speed and quantity of these changes coming fast and furiously each week, there is really just one hard fact to point to: Social Media loves cats -- especially cat pictures with witty captions.

Other than that, only time will tell what the future holds as social media networks continue to add more updates and features in the attempt to satisfy their shareholders, users and advertisers.