As a founding member of a company that positioned itself back when it started in 2007, as one that helps its clients be part of the “Social Web” and shortly after on mobile. I am not only curious but feel some sort of obligation to share my thinking, research, and opinion on the state of social media every few years.
The first round of thinking was in 2019 when I wrote: “When “Free” became the pretext for predatory media culture”, since then and after all buzz around the so-called “Evil” social media giants, you’d think the use of these platforms decreased? Not only did it continue, but newcomers entered what seemed to be a busy space and are on their way to making it even bigger. Although, Facebook is indeed facing a user-ship decline, while Twitter's fate is currently within the US justice system.
Some people love social media, others hate it, but no one can escape it today, it has become part of our everyday life whether we choose to consume it or not.
In this post/video, I want to take you with me on a journey where we can understand how social media evolved to date, and how it has shaped us as individuals and cultures. I share my suggestions on we can use it better, in its current form, and give a summary of the ideas out there on how we can move forward.
THE EVOLUTION, 16 YEARS ON
For me, it really started with Facebook.
In late 2006, Facebook opened its user-ship to the world, and friending became an international phenomenon, we connected with family and friends and we felt safe to post mostly any statement or photo that came to mind or was at hand.
Though blogging, a form of social media was born many years earlier, as well as discussion forums, in my opinion, the wide use of the term social media as we know it today was coined shortly after Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and others became world phenomena. Read more here.
Others say the internet is in itself the mega new medium and I don’t disagree, but for someone who used the internet a decade before social media became a thing, and whose job for over 20 years has revolved around building digital tools and products, I beg to differ. The internet did elevate our consciousness into a new realm of the global reach of information, yet social media (Web 2.0) has and is still disrupting our worldviews and behavior at an unprecedented pace.
Following won over friending.
Twitter maybe was the first one to use this user experience, but it surely became the norm. Even LinkedIn used to make sure you know the person you want to add, yet now lets you add anyone you want unless they specifically state they don’t want that “feature”.
Public networks are growing over private ones.
Even Facebook automatically lets someone who wants to friend you follow you meanwhile you approve them or not. (Check your privacy settings!)
They won over the personal, chronological listing or curated one, as the need arrived to optimize ad placement. Each algorithm gets designed to match the platform's strategy between pleasing content consumers from one side, keeping advertisers happy, and last on the list of priorities are the content creators themselves. With every change, dozens of articles and videos are made to explain the dynamics: "optimization" for all organic content.
User attention is the product.
Everything else became a tool to grow, capture and sell that attention. Being a product strategist myself, and having worked on my own product ideas in the past without a specific business model in mind but the obvious: “we will sell ads at some point”. I think I know how this business model manifests, it mostly comes from the founders’ aspiration to provide their product for free for people anywhere in the world. And to deliver on that vision, they typically will need millions of dollars from investors who not only will help them grow but push them to generate revenue. At that moment, your attention, eyeballs, and engagement become the true product they sell to businesses out there looking to sell their own products and services.
Video is KING.
And the most engaging content type, whether it's long, medium, or short-form.
From users to either content consumers or creators.
Probably the most exciting new entrepreneurial project in the new 20s is becoming a content creator. Those who started their journey a decade ago proved to create and monetize their follow-ship, not only through ads but through products they have created around their expertise like books, courses, etc.
On the other hand, we are all consumers in the new medium, consequently, our worldviews are being altered at a much faster pace than ever before.
IMPACT AND EFFECTS
As part of the research, I did before writing this post, the majority of people who had something to say or state about social media impact fall into three camps.
The first camp is the marketers (everything is digital now) whose aim is to help businesses of all sizes master their marketing efforts on social media.
The second camp is the stop-using-social-media-now camp, these include prominent individuals, inspirational speakers, researchers, psychologists, book authors…, etc.
The third is all of us who can neither claim it’s great nor bad as a whole. Some say it’s important for activism, others say that it’s bad for effective activism which historically meant going down to the street, some say social media facilitates dialogue, others say it is killing it, and so forth.
The following is my registry of significant effects of social media use from the late 2000s to date grouped into three main aspects, political, business, and psychological.
A New Political Age
Power to the individual
The rise of the social media activist has been paramount to the political effects of social media, their ability to communicate their messages on whichever topic and form like-minded storms, especially on Twitter, has brought unprecedented power to the individual. Yet, it has made us think that being an active social media supporter of a cause is enough to change the world. It’s not, but still necessary.
This is evident in many minorities that got their voices heard. From positive movements like LGBT rights and the #metoo movements to the rise of ISIS, alt-right, and Neo-Nazi movements all the same.
Effective mobilization around any subject
We’ve seen the power of mobilization firsthand during the US elections in 2009 and more so during the Arab uprisings around 2011-2013, where the use of Facebook and Twitter helped mobilize, and organize revolutionaries to march and organize sit-ins and protests. To date, the use of these platforms helps mobilization across different topics around the world.
Invasion of privacy and mass surveillance
Edward Snowden did blow the whistle on the US mass surveillance program that implicated social media giants. But the fact is many governments are using software that is specialized in surveilling citizens’ every online move including and especially on social media.
Fake news and misinformation campaigns
Up until Brexit in 2015 and the 2016 presidential elections in the US, social media was mostly seen as a platform that empower the individual as well as the masses. What happened during these two events across the Atlantic, was the first massive account of how social media was used to deliberately misinform the masses and sway their votes in a specific direction, though it’s been used all over the world to persuade people to choose one proponent over the other, years before.
Shaking up Western Democracy
Since 2016, the question surrounding liberal western democracies turned into a crisis. While soft and hard dictatorships learned their lessons from the Arab uprising a few years earlier, by putting in place laws that restricted free speech, liberal western democracies can’t do the same and that’s where social media is attacking the most. If this topic interests you, you can read these articles: Liberal democracy's Achilles Heel and Social Media Effects: Hijacking Democracy and Civility in Civic Engagement.
Today, no B2C (business-to-consumer) business can operate and grow without an active social media presence, preferably across all platforms. The ones that win more followers deliver engaging content, that attracts likes and comments, and shares. Facebook is still relevant to a specific age group, but its most power comes in Facebook Groups as a global community-building tool. Instagram is extremely relevant amongst 40 something and below, Youtube attracts everyone, while TikTok started with kids, it’s now on its way to attracting everyone as well.
Social media changed marketing forever, democratized access to advertising similar to what google did to search yet more than any other digital platform, they have made use of the vast data available from users to invent super targeted advertising and made it available to anyone with a credit card and unverified business account or page. Moreover, social media also gave power to individuals to promote certain products/services of brands as influencers, taking back power and cash from a business that now needs to communicate behind a human, not just an ad, and depending on their moral values, influencers give a thumbs up or thumb down to a product/service and collectively influence its fate.
I left this third and last group of effects to the end because here, it was hard, almost impossible to find anything positive. A shorter attention span is on top of the list. And with the arrival of TikTok, even video has somehow managed to be entertaining in a few seconds. Maybe its fate was to be expected 10 years after 140-character posts? Or have I forgotten, America’s Funniest Home Videos?
We most had those furious reactions here and there on someone’s post on one platform or the other, what has been noticeable is the aggressive and border-line rudeness of the conversations that happen, rendering somehow a very polarized view of a lot of discussions on these platforms. Somehow people, who are mostly well-mannered in person, turn into angry beasts online, especially with strangers. This Ted video is an example of what these conversations get different by using a phone, let alone face-to-face.
Of all the psychological harm over-consuming social media can do its most drastic negative impact is on pre-teens and teens, especially girls on self-image, shame, and anxiety, This is most alarming and has only been researched well in the past few years. The discussion at the moment is on how to educate parents on the need to delay social media usage for as long as they possibly can. You can read more about what they are trying to do in the US here.
”THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE”
If we are to take McLuhan’s popular statement into the discussion about social media. In that case, the quality of content or demanding more content moderation will merely scratch the surface of the adverse effects and would dangerously enter the realm of censorship. This is exactly how Chinese social media giants kept their government happy to keep banning the use of international companies.
Can we control the medium then?
The medium itself is not within our control, the major companies that own and operate social media have made some effort to self-regulating themselves in the past few years but their business is still wrapped up around our attention being the product and as long as that remains the case the adverse effects will keep accumulating along with the positive ones.
Can we ignore the medium?
Some certainly can but not something I would like to encourage. Mostly because I think it’s isolating. It’s not the first time we, humans, experience a lot of negative effects because of an invention or a platform.
Neither truth, fair elections, justice, peace nor good manners were ever defaults of the human experience. It took many prophets, philosophers, sociologists, scientists, psychologists, engineers, authors, artists, and many more to bring us to where we are today. Yet today, as we have access like never did before, it surely takes a lot of effort to dig to find signals amongst the noise.
There are many great educators, artists, writers, musicians, collectives, innovators, healers, small businesses, and change-makers creating amazing content. Add to that regular folk sharing unique moments of their lives.
What remains in our control is our use, and the only aspect we can control within the user experience given to us is to curate our own. I feel I have been able to tame its beast through simple and small tweaks that serve my interests and the kind of interactions I’d like to maintain.
- following people/content/organizations/brands that bring us content we enjoy, and unfollow noise wherever it comes from
- Mute posts, stories, or snooze pages/people whenever we only want to stay connected to or as a show of support but don’t want to consume their content.
- always choose not to allow apps to track our mobile usage,
- then where possible reset any recommendation engine/algorithm that keeps serving us content that matches our search queries. YouTube allows this and I use it regularly.
- Be open to paying a small some when possible to support content creators outside of the ads model, by buying their products or supporting them on Patreon or their crowdfunding campaigns.
A note about Twitter, I haven’t been using the platform for a long time now and fell out of the local and global circles of people I used to follow. I use it now and then for Twitter storm events when there is a cause I am interested in supporting. That’s mostly tweets and retweets. Why? Because in my opinion, it’s the biggest echo chamber of all other platforms.
What can businesses do?
Any business today, should start with finding its soul and translating that into an authentic brand and messages, and only after that, their options lay between one of the following three strategies.
They can either produce useful and engaging content internally by hiring a content team or externally through a third party, though the good ones tend to be expensive, the third option is to pay influencers regularly using sponsorship contracts or branded content deals. A combination of the three is possible as well.
Yet, for those operating small businesses, all these options are expensive and out of reach, their best bet is to make content making an everyday business activity for all staff, share the strategy and policy, and alternate between assigning different gatekeepers. For even smaller businesses and startups, then I would suggest that part of the founding DNA of the company should be a content creator, this is how important it has become. If the internet facilitated access to information, while social platforms facilitated networking, then content creators are defining this new age we are in.
So how does all of that take us forward?
Will social media seize to exist? No.
Will it evolve into something better? Maybe, depends on who will define “better”.
Part of the magic of social media is that these conversations are already happening, with scholars, policymakers, technologists, and even the CEOs of these platforms. A live document of the research and ideas can be found here.
They identified 3 main areas of improvement
1. Change the User Experience for kids under 18 y/o, I would even go as far as creating separate apps for kids and teens.
2. Control the virality of content, to limit the reach of everyone. Similar to how stock exchanges have a day limit on trading any stock.
3. Punish nasty behavior systematically without any form of intended moderation. Similar in a way to users flagging content.
Here is a summary of the ideas out there:
- Enforce age restrictions and change the user experience for kids.
- A paid subscription option like Netflix
- Create and deploy crowd rating systems that punish nasty behavior within the user experience
- Basic human verification to clamp down the influence of trolls/bots.
- Provide the ability to reset usage history,
- Open source all feed algorithms and have the users select which ones they want to use.
- Provide the ability to edit “interests” those platforms know about you
- Verify business/organization accounts that can post ads similar to what Apple does with business App Store accounts.
- Limit the vitality of content, and limit the share/retweet buttons. More on this here
- Limit the number of people who can join a Facebook group in a day/week or month.
Thank you for reading and do reach out to me on YouTube/Facebook/Instagram if you have a comment or want to share your own insights and even if you disagree with any or all of what’s written :-)