The Hype Gap

Social media companies do not lie when they report how many registered users they have, but they also do not tell the whole truth.

Social networks have always been presented with big numbers and big numbers always impress people. For example, Facebook reportedly has 800 million users. Three months ago, Google launched a rival network called Google Plus, and according to a recent report now has 40 million users, which makes it the most impressively growing network on the Web. Twitter, in contrast, reports that it has 200 million users.

The problem with the numbers is not what they reveal but what they conceal.

Take, for example, Facebook. Many of its users have a personal profile that they use in their daily lives, but they also have a business profile through which they separate among friends, occupations and worlds. Many have one fake profile (or more ), through which they join pages with brands, take part in contests and download applications. Thus they keep their other profiles free of annoying offers. Some people have a profile that's no more than a joke, like "fake Eli Yishai" or "God's deputy," where they merely amuse themselves.

All these profiles belong to one person and yet Facebook counts them as separate users. So how many users does Facebook really have? The truth is that no one really knows, but it certainly is not 800 million people. Not really.

Google Plus and Twitter have another problem. When Google opened Google Plus, I soon joined. I tried it out and for a short while I was even impressed. But that time is past. My account on Google Plus is now a memorial to the interest I once had in the network. But from Google's perspective, I am one of its 40 million users. What is the real number of people using Google Plus? The truth is that no one can be really sure, but what is sure is that it is not 40 million people.

Twitter tried to deal with the issue somewhat more transparently. About two months ago, Twitter reported that although it has more than 200 million registered users, only 100 million are "active users." And what is an "active user?" Someone who connects to the service at least once a month. Don't make me laugh. Twitter is the kind of service that if you don't use it almost every day, sometimes a few times a day, you don't really use it at all. Anyone talking in terms of "once a month" wants to inflate its group of "active users." So how many people really use Twitter? The truth is no one knows for sure.

The companies do not lie when they report how many registered users they have, but they also do not tell the whole truth. The truth is important because it is what tells the real story: Facebook has hundreds of millions of double users, fake or invented; Google Plus and Twitter have tens of millions of abandoned accounts. The gap between the official blown-up and glittering statistics and the real numbers are the "hype gap," the gap between promise and reality. The various companies have an economic and image interest in pumping up the hype. Therefore, it is better to relate to figures that are published with a grain of salt, if not to say with the whole Dead Sea.


The author is the head of the Digital Studies track at the College of Management's School of Communications.

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