The 21st century has been the century of social media. Roughly two decades into it, we now have enough of a sample size to make some observations about its evolution --- and to speculate about what the future might hold. In the year 2020, these are the significant events and trends that we’ve noticed:
1. Data mining is still the prevalent business model for the Big 4 (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). If anything, data mining technology is becoming more advanced and more invasive.
2. More and more, speech on major social media platforms is being regulated and controlled. This is perfectly within the rights of the companies that own the platforms, but the effect is that some users feel stifled
3. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook2020 have brought us built in “fact checking”, where user content is flagged by moderators according to their opinion of its truthfulness.
4. As a result of the above concerns, alternative platforms are emerging. These platforms (for a list of alternatives social media platforms, see here) have creative business models that don’t rely on advertising. Major selling points for them include less regulation of speech, a commitment to protecting your privacy, and a commitment to transparency
5. Some Americans are quitting Facebook, and social media, altogether.
6. People across the globe are spending more time on Facebook and, presumably, other platforms.
7. While some sources say that some Americans are leaving Facebook (due to privacy concerns and time wasted, among other reasons), the number of users worldwide on Facebook continues to climb with each passing year. Additionally, the percentage of the global population that is using Facebook is increasing
8. Twitter’s fact checking of President Trump provoked him to pass an Executive Order, regarding their status as a platform vs publisher. This Order was a clarification of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (you can see more about this order and what it actually does by reading this article).
9. The Department of Justice announced an anti trust investigation into Google, which they allegedly intend to culminate by filing charges soon (ie, in October 2020). Google owns both YouTube and Android, so this could have significant impact on the way we use social media.
To summarize, distrust in the major platforms is increasing with Americans, due to the above concerns, and to recent scandals like Cambridge Analytica. While the political left accuses Russia and the Trump administration of colluding to use Facebook for election interference, the right accuses all the major platforms of suppressing right wing expression. Based on this alone, nobody should trust social media. Yet most of us do, giving the major platforms access to some of our most intimate details.
Predictions about the future of social media
Though social media does offer users new possibilities, the direction that we’re currently going in with it is pretty dark. I know very few people who are actually better off for the existence of social media. For example, the necessity of visiting or calling a friend or family member has been lifted; now we settle for the carefully cultivated, attention hungry version of people’s lives that hundred or thousands of others see. If anything, we’re less connected. Social media allows us to settle for what's comfortable and convenient, rather than what’s productive.
This trend cannot continue forever, though. At some point, people start to question why there is such alack of fulfillment and intimacy in their lives. We have to draw boundaries to become more productive in every other facet of our being. This realization is what ultimately drives people to scale down their social media usage. Anecdotally speaking, this is something I see with people in their late 20’s and older. The pain caused by wasted time simply becomes too much as we age. Our priorities change. With all that in mind, here are some predictions about the future of social media:
1. People will migrate to different platforms.
There’s nothing particularly special about Facebook or the other major platforms; they’re simply the most popular because they’ve always been the most popular. Other platforms seem to run off a better business model, but nobody wants to use a platform that other people aren’t on. But the more people that move, the more appealing other platforms become.
If this is the direction we go in, social media could become more of a tool used with intention. The social media landscape will break up into smaller, more specialized networks, where people connect over more specific things. In some ways, this is already happening. Conservative users are abandoning Facebook and Twitter for Parler. R/the Donald was banned from Reddit, and replaced by its own site, the Donald.win. As a result, some Trump supporters abandoned Reddit and all of its many subreddits altogether, and now lurk the Donald instead.
The divide is, and will continue to be, political. But people are also quitting over privacy concerns, a distaste for supporting mega wealthy corporations like Facebook, and the fact that the major platforms aren’t designed to be productive.
2. More people will quit social media altogether.
At the end of the day, there’s always something more productive to do than be on social media, unless it literally is your job. The truth is, social media is not even that useful for the things its supposed to be useful for. What is 1,000 virtual friends worth if it comes at the cost of hours you could spend with areal person?
FOMO is a driving force behind social media usage, and the developers know it. But get this: its okay to be out of the loop. Sometimes we’re better off having not heard about things that everybody else did. We can get caught in the trap of thinking that its the new and improved way to discuss politics and current events, but it can never replace face to face conversation.
Nor are you learning about important things happening in the world. The internet is great for that, but scrolling your feed isn’t. Your feed is constructed with only one priority: to hold your attention. So where else do you get info, then? That’s a good question. The answer is to that is that there was a time before TV and Facebook where the world didn’t self destruct. So any self sufficient adult ought to be able to figure it out.
3. The major platforms will change the way they treat their users.
They’ll have to. Right? If people stop using their products, they won’t have a choice. Of course, there’s probably a lot of people who just like social media and would rather spend their time there than doing other things that some of us would call more productive, even at the cost of being exploited by Big Tech. But the more people abandon the Big 4, the more they’ll have to reconsider their value proposition.
And there’s something else in the wind that could force them to change their behavior. If the DOJ’s anti trust lawsuit doesn’t go well for Google, Facebook and Twitter will have to take a hard look at the ice they’re skating on. Trump has already taken action against them with his executive order, provoked by Twitter’s fact checking. This hasn’t stopped said behavior, but it also hasn’t been good for the public’s perception of the Big 4, especially among right-wing users.
While the order by Trump seems like its not doing much, it shows that the current administration is willing to at least make a show of fighting for things like speech. At the very least it muddies the waters for the Big 4. At best, it sets a precedent and sends a warning.
Then, there’s the possibility that nothing changes. There is probably a large base of users that have no complaints. But if nothing changes, users that feel violated are going to leave, and many are going to leave either way. So I’m expecting things to change in the next few years. Maybe we’ll see a new Big4. Maybe the Big 4 will become the kind-of-big 4, which leaves the door open for somebody else to slide in. Maybe all of social media will break up into many specialized platforms. Something’s going to give, sooner or later, and it will probably be sooner.