Over the last few years, social media has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Besides being accused of causing depression and inadvertent cyber-bullying, it has run into governments over unfairly influencing elections (2016 elections in the U.S.), not treating the ecosystem of journalists fairly (e.g. in Australia) and has faced continuous backlash from mass media and end consumers (think of the Netflix movie Social Dilemma). Despite its flaws, its usage across the world only seems to be increasing, rising from two-three hours everyday before the pandemic to four-six hours everyday during the pandemic with a user base of over 4 billion across the globe. As the voices for social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok, etc) reform gather pace, this column looks at the possible reform agenda of social media over the next decade.
The major criticism of social media has been of polarising society and causing anxiety and poor mental health
Social media was intended to be a fun platform to share photos and updates and connect with a larger community of friends. However, it has traversed a long distance from that objective. In its worst form, it is accused of hosting excessively political ads, promoting cyber-bullying (leading to suicides of many K-Pop stars), establishing unrealistic body images for teenage girls, and spreading fake news driving civil unrest (e.g. during Black Lives Matter protests, recruitment by terror group, ISIS, and during the ongoing farmers' protest in India). At an individual level, it leads to relentless and mindless scrolling, witnessing the beautiful lives of others, and measuring individual self-worth through a combination of likes and comments. To be honest, nearly a decade after social media came into prominence, its benefits have paled in comparison to the harm it has caused.
Consumers are looking for more authentic forms of social media over the next few years
Instead of being viewed as a platform for creating anxiety, social media is being asked upon to reform itself to create a more positive experience by its end users. The biggest test for platforms like Facebook is how it can stay relevant for Gen Z consumers.
As a result, there is a constant evolution in authentic formats with audio format consumption (e.g. leading to the phenomenal rise of Clubhouse) followed by short stories (e.g. especially on LinkedIn). Despite conventional knowledge that videos cause nine times the engagement of textual material, its ability to exasperate zoom fatigue is pushing consumers away from it.
Post the pandemic, as we all embrace localised cultures, there is going to be an increasing demand for localised content (e.g. India-focused ShareChat has nearly 280 million users) and like-minded chat rooms to discuss content without putting each other down. In course of time, there is going to be a greater demand for end-user authentication to prevent the menace of anonymous cyber-bullying that has led to the death of many popular K-pop stars.
To prevent the menace of doomsday scrolling, some emerging social media platforms (e.g. Sundayy) are allowing sharing only on certain days of the week and limiting access on the platform. It is a matter of time before likes and comments are removed for all consumers to prevent the comparison syndrome.
As an ecosystem, social media is likely to head towards the WeChat model where it serves a far greater purpose of driving social interactions, providing news services, allowing transactions like utilities payments, fixing doctor appointments, and even applying for visas. Even in countries like India, the future of social commerce (as the funding of Meesho indicates) is likely to rise disproportionately.
Social media giants have to address concerns of privacy, excessive control, and being fair to the larger community
Over the last couple of years, social media giants have been facing concerns on privacy and excessive control. They have had numerous run-ins with governments with Twitter taking down the account of ex-President Donald Trump and Google threatening to walk out of Australia. There is an increasing call for breaking-up the big technology majors to drive de-centralisation of power across its various geographies.
In addition, there is also a call for greater board reform with greater participation of media and government representations to address the issue of fake news and meddling with government elections. It is a matter of time before they have partnerships with major media networks to drive fact checking on their platforms and pay them appropriately.
A major change is likely to be U.S. lawmakers revisiting Section 230, the bedrock federal legislation that shields technology majors from liabilities for what’s posted on their platforms. In course of time, despite their generous donations to lawmakers and resultant political clout, politicians are going to tighten the noose by diluting the provisions of Section 230 to make social media giants more accountable for their content. Eventually, they will have to share their user data with government agencies for greater control and visibility.
From a user experience, ads have often been criticised as driving the negative impact of social media by nudging consumers to keep scrolling, polarising their views, driving comparisons and encouraging their journey towards anxiety. The rise in subscription based models for consumers, without any ads, private chat rooms, viewing verified news from reputed media agencies, limited visibility of likes and comments might go a long way in reducing social media anxiety and doomsday scrolling. This also implies that each influencer is likely to have their own eco-system operating as their own independent social media that is financially viable and socially conscious.
In conclusion, the evolution of social media is going to be one of the biggest themes this upcoming decade. Cracking this might be the biggest step forward in dealing with the biggest pandemic the human race is facing—declining mental health.
Until then, why don’t you go to my LinkedIn page and like my posts!
Views are personal. The writer is the author of Hacks for Life and Career: A Millennial’s Guide to Making it Big.