The future of social media is much less social

The future of social media is much less social

The future of social media is much less social

Almost two decades ago, Facebook exploded onto college campuses as a site for students to stay in touch. Then came Twitter, where people posted what they had for breakfast, and Instagram, where friends shared photos to follow each other.

Today, Instagram and Facebook feeds are full of ads and sponsored posts. TikTok and Snapchat are full of videos of influencers promoting dish soaps and dating apps. And soon, the Twitter posts that gain the most exposure will come primarily from followers paying for exposure and other perks.

Social media is, in many ways, becoming less and less social. The types of posts where people tell friends and family about their lives have become harder to see over the years as the bigger sites have become more “corporatized”. Instead of seeing posts and photos from friends and relatives about their vacations or fancy dinners, users on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat now often see professional content from brands, influencers and others who pay for placement.

The change has implications for major social media companies and the way people interact with each other digitally. But it also raises questions about a central idea: the online platform. For years, the notion of a platform – an all-in-one, publicly accessible site where people spent most of their time – reigned supreme. But as major social networks made connecting people with brands a priority rather than connecting them with other people, some users began to seek out community sites and apps dedicated to hobbies and hobbies. specific problems.

“Platforms as we knew them are gone,” said Zizi Papacharissi, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who teaches classes on social media. “They have outlived their usefulness.”

This shift helps explain why some social media companies, which continue to have billions of users and generate billions of dollars in revenue, are now exploring new avenues of business. Twitter, which is owned by Elon Musk, is pushing people and brands to pay $8 to $1,000 a month to become subscribers. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is entering the immersive online world of the so-called metaverse.

For users, this means that instead of spending all their time on one or a few large social networks, some turn to smaller, more targeted sites. These include Mastodon, which is essentially a community-sliced ​​Twitter clone; Nextdoor, a social network for neighbors to complain about everyday issues such as local potholes; and apps like Truth Social, launched by former President Donald J. Trump and seen as a social network for conservatives.

“It’s not about picking one network to rule them all — that’s crazy Silicon Valley logic,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The future is for you to be a member of dozens of different communities, because as human beings, that’s who we are.”

Twitter, which automatically responds to press inquiries with a poo emoji, did not comment on the social media development. Meta declined to comment, and TikTok did not respond to a request for comment. Snap, the creator of Snapchat, said that while its app has evolved, connecting people with friends and family remains its core function.

A shift to smaller, more targeted networks was predicted years ago by some of the biggest names in social media, including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.

In 2019, Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post that private messaging and small groups were the fastest growing areas of online communication. Mr Dorsey, who stepped down as chief executive of Twitter in 2021, has pushed for so-called decentralized social networks that allow people to control the content they see and the communities they interact with. He recently posted on Nostr, a social media site based on this principle.

Over the past year, technologists and academics have also focused on smaller social networks. In an article published last month titled “The Three-Legged Stool: A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Internet,” Zuckerman and other scholars discussed how future companies could run small networks at low cost.

They also suggested creating an app that essentially acts as a social media Swiss army knife by allowing people to switch between the sites they use, including Twitter, Mastodon, Reddit and smaller networks. One such app, called Gobo and developed by the MIT Media Lab and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is due out next month.

The trickiest part for users is finding the most recent small networks, as they are obscure. But larger social networks, like Mastodon or Reddit, often act as a gateway to smaller communities. When signing up for Mastodon, for example, users can choose a server from a long list, including those related to games, food, and activism.

Eugen Rochko, chief executive of Mastodon, said users post more than a billion posts per month in its communities and there are no algorithms or ads altering people’s feeds.

One of the main advantages of small networks is that they create forums for specific communities, including marginalized people. Ahwaa, which was founded in 2011, is a social network for members of the LGBTQ community in Persian Gulf countries where being gay is considered illegal. Other smaller networks, like Letterboxd, an app for moviegoers to share their opinions about movies, focus on particular interests.

Small communities can also relieve some social pressure from social media use, especially for young people. Over the past decade, stories have emerged — including in congressional hearings on the dangers of social media — of teens developing eating disorders after trying to live up to Instagram photos. perfect” and watching videos on TikTok.

The idea that a new social media site could become everyone’s only app seems unrealistic, experts say. When young people are done experimenting with a new network — like BeReal, the photo-sharing app that was popular among teens last year but is now hemorrhaging millions of active users — they move on to the next one. .

“They won’t be swayed by the first brilliant platform that comes along,” Ms. Papacharissi said.

People’s online identities will become increasingly fragmented across multiple sites, she added. To talk about professional achievements, there is LinkedIn. To play video games with other players, there is Discord. To discuss the news, there is Artefact.

“What interests us are smaller groups of people communicating with each other about specific things,” Ms Papacharissi said.

More small networks are probably on the horizon. Last year, Harvard University, where Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004 as a student, launched a research program dedicated to restarting social media. The program helps students and others create and experience new networks together.

An app spun off from the program, Minus, allows users to post just 100 posts to their lifetime timeline. The idea is to make people feel connected in an environment where their time together is treated as a precious and limited resource, unlike traditional social networks such as Facebook and Twitter which use infinite scrolling interfaces to keep engaged users for as long as possible.

“It’s a performance art experiment,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law and computer science professor who started the research initiative. “It’s the kind of thing that as soon as you see it, it doesn’t have to be like that.”


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