Social media, a once frivolous and niche messaging tool developed by side-line internet users, is notoriously difficult to predict when it comes to its evolution and future.
Who remembers Bebo? What about MSN messenger? These outdated platforms were trailblazers that opened the door to arguably the most powerful tool our world has ever seen. As of May 08, 2020 the Facebook net worth is in excess of $600 Billion. This incredible statistic shows the financial possibilities created by social media, and the unprecedented speed with which empires can be built in Silicon Valley. Not only has social media become a financially powerful tool, but it has also evolved into a heavily political one that has the power to challenge states of authority. Most recently, Facebook went head to head with the Australian government by taking the dramatic decision to block news from being shared to its users in Australia. Through every like, comment, and share we’ve made over the past decade, we’ve enabled social media to come a long way since the days of MySpace and Friendster.
So where will it go next?
The social media as a copy-paste playground
To think about the future of social media, we have to look at the recent UX changes that have been made by the major players (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and Snapchat). With the instant success of TikTok stealing user screen time from established platforms, there have been many noticeable changes to algorithms, platform layout and design, and even some new features. These have included: expansion of the Instagram Shop feature, with this button replacing the ‘activity’ button in the prime toolbar position; creation of an Instagram Reels feature and feed; a Snapchat version of Reels; censorship and flagging increasing on Twitter; expansion to the ads manager features in LinkedIn; and YouTube pushing out their premium membership.
Each one of these changes reflects a move that at its core can be described as copying someone else. It’s the same features, different conglomerate. The future of social media is agile, and once one platform introduces some form of innovation, the others will copy quickly to keep up with the shift.
The monetisation argument
Another important, if not the most important, factor that will determine the future of social media is monetisation and the financial model that is used by social media platforms. Currently, social media’s success is based on the fact that it is free to the user and it’s the businesses who pay to advertise on the platforms, creating a more than lucrative income for the tech giants. In December of 2020, YouTube was down for 37 minutes in certain areas resulting in a $1.7M loss of ad revenue. This demonstrates the astronomical sum that is being made every minute by social media platforms in ad revenue. Although the current model has proven success in generating huge turnover, it does have some drawbacks that could mean the current framework may have to change.
The basic concept of social media is that it’s a virtual community; a place to share photos, information, thoughts and feelings with friends, family, and built communities. Advertising becomes an annoying distraction for the user that, even with the best tailored ads settings, disengage users and leave them frustrated with the platform. There is also an increasing fear that advertising from powerful and rich businesses can lead to a monopoly on advertorial space and customers, as well as a strong ability to spread propaganda. In the 2020 US election, social media advertising and influence was a hot topic that no doubt will continue to unwrap over the next few years.
The “data is power” argument
We have also seen how user data is power. As advertising platforms gain more and more user data, the advertising market becomes more and more competitive, with target audiences becoming extremely specific and valuable. The use of user data as a commodity is a scary step towards omniscient and omnipotent platforms who can ‘own’ every aspect of a users’ virtual existence. It’s toxic elements such as these that suggest perhaps a different monetisation model could be the way to a better virtual society. Subscription models have boomed throughout the Coronavirus pandemic with the likes of Netflix, spotify and YouTube coming out on top. Perhaps this monetisation model is the key to better social media platforms; a virtual community where users pay to be a part of it.
The social media user behaviour argument
Another reason that the future of social media could include a focus on security, community, and subscriptions is the user themselves. In 2020 we have seen a user revolution where millions of users swarmed off major platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to other, new platforms that offer more community: notably TikTok. The speed with which TikTok has grown shows the power that authentic community can have. When the platform first launched, advertisers hadn’t caught on and were quick to judge it as exclusively for Gen Z. Unsurprisingly, they have now caught up and ads are infiltrating user feeds like fish take to water. Regardless, the TikTok community is alive and well. The short form video format, creative creator studio, and ease of virality mean that users enjoy being authentic on the platform and are happy to spend hours on it, often taking the place of traditional TV entertainment. It seems that every time a platform, such as Instagram, becomes too commercial, users revolt and turn elsewhere. This creates a game of cat and mouse for the advertiser to user.
So, where does that leave us?
Here at OggaDoon, we know that to make a guess at the future of social media is to make a drunken stab in the dark. That said, here is our hypothesis: social media’s plight of advertising will get worse before it gets better. We think feeds will become outrageously saturated with adverts causing users to run from these platforms. There will be a breaking point and one social media giant will break the mold with a different monetisation model, likely subscription, that brings the platforms back to their essence: community. There will also be more security involved, particularly in regards to account authentication, with photo ID being required to create an account and hate speech heavily regulated.
One thing is for certain, the future of social media will be dynamic. The names we know today, and their platforms will not exist in the same way in five years’ time. Advertising will become the enemy in the eyes of the user and there will be a dramatic shift to bring the platforms back to being about the users first and foremost. We can’t wait to see what happens.
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