The Future of Social Media
Published on February 24, 2017
Social media once delivered us headlines, now it’s making them. We can’t go a day without hearing this, that, or the other about our favorite platforms. Spend any amount of time online, and you’re liable to hear a dozen stories about what social network is changing, which is going public, which is fizzling out, and which is directly responsible for affecting the outcome of a presidential election.
Here at Geek, we care deeply about social media. And we’re not just talking about how it works, but what it means – for our clients, yes, but also for us as avid tweeters, snappers, live-streamers, and aspiring Vine stars (too soon?).
Social media has hit a tipping point, and we’re all about to ride a big, possibly world-changing roller coaster together. Ready to know what big changes are in store for your favorite social platform in the days, months, and years ahead?
Let’s break down “the big five” – where they’ve been, where they’re going, and how they’re going to impact our digital future:
Mark Zuckerberg 2020? The Facebook CEO has denied any intent to run for political office, but it says something big about Facebook’s reach and cultural importance that he had to address any rumors in the first place.
That reach, by the way? An average of 1.23 billion daily active users (DAU), and 1.86 billion monthly active users; both of these are huge jumps over the previous year’s user rates. And all of those eyes add up: Facebook reported $8.81 billion in revenue in Q4 2016, a number largely made possible by Facebook’s domination of the mobile advertising market, where the company amassed 84% of its advertising revenue.
Facebook is a behemoth with tentacles in so many aspects of daily life that we tend to take it for granted. At least we did, until the world-shaking results of the 2016 election, when the social media service found itself flung back into the spotlight over the issue of “Fake News.” Many feel that the deliberate, unchecked spread of misinformation on Facebook significantly contributed to the results of the U.S. election; the site disagreed, but has pledged to work on the issue moving forward.
Those efforts are what are going to define Facebook in 2017 and beyond. The big focus? Facebook must confront its status as not just our biggest social media platform, but one of the largest and most influential media companies the world has ever seen, period. To that end, the site has been working on algorithmic changes to its platform, updates which aim to prioritize content created by friends and “authentic sources” over marketing content and outside links from media channels.
Besides simply stemming the spread of fake news, however, this trend has sent marketers and legitimate agencies scrambling; organic reach - or the number of people that a Facebook post is able to be shown to – has long been in decline. These algorithmic changes may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, forcing advertisers to turn more toward paid advertising and new media.
That new media? Video, which Zuckerberg himself has called a “mega trend” of our digital future (some of his associates have taken this prediction one step further, all but prognosticating the end of the written word as we know it). As TechCrunch first pointed out, the future of Facebook may look a lot like the current state of YouTube; in other words, expect short form video content, provided by users and media networks alike, to be the number one aim of the platform. Facebook is driving hard toward this video-heavy future, recently unveiling a dedicated video tab, heavily advertising live-streaming video, and even batting around the idea of mid-roll video advertisements.
Couple these algorithmic shifts and the boosting of video with a constantly-changing “Trending Topics” box and, potentially, a different labeling system for content, and the future of Facebook may look very different from the present. But what are you going to do? Stop using it?
Buoyed by the full weight of its parent company, Facebook, Instagram has long been popular for marketers and everyday users alike – to the tune of 400 million daily active users (DAU), and 600 million monthly users as of the end of 2016. That’s wild. For what it’s worth, that statistic tells us that more people use Instagram in a day than use Twitter in an entire month.
And like the cool kid in school it so clearly is, Instagram isn’t afraid to show some muscle and intimidate off some of the littler guys – all while it takes their best features as its own. The end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 have seen an amazing flurry of activity from Instagram, as the app positions itself as a social media leader for years to come, unveiling new features seemingly every few days.
These updates include Instagram Stories, which acts as a direct bite into Snapchat’s market share by adapting its most popular feature, the ability to chain together a series of short videos, for the Instagram set; rather than scoffs at its brazen attempt to coopt a rival’s functionality, Instagram Stories has actually been met with resounding success, already boasting 150 million DAU, according to some reports.
And in January of 2017, the newly emboldened Instagram stepped up its game even further, announcing even more new features, including Instagram Albums, which allows users to upload multiple images at once as a gallery; this addition joins Instagram Live (live-streaming videos that disappear immediately after the stream stops – meaning that they’re not replayable), and Instagram Direct Ephemeral (which allows users to send photos or videos directly to a friend or follower that will then “self-destruct” after one or two plays).
The only real risk for Instagram moving forward? Biting off more than it can chew. There’s a fine line between increasing functionality for your core user base and alienating that base altogether with an app that suddenly seems very different from the one for which they originally signed up. Case in point: Do you remember the tremors when Insta announced a shift away from a chronological timeline? If outcry was that wild over a minor tweak like that, imagine the pushback against a mountain of new features if those additions are anything less than perfectly executed.
It will be interesting to see which of these features stick in the months ahead. Will Instagram’s meteoric rise continue, or will its new “kitchen sink” approach lead to confusion and stalled growth? We’ll be following along.
Perhaps due to its status as the current commander in chief’s social media of choice, Twitter has become the central hub of many of our country’s most important political and cultural battles – despite having been passed in active user rates by Instagram, Snapchat, and, at one point, even Pokémon Go. (Remember Pokémon Go?)
How Twitter deals with its new status as social media’s resident tempest in a teapot will be the defining issue for the platform moving forward. Like Facebook and its all-too-necessary bipartisan front against Fake News, Twitter has its hands full with some important – and uniquely modern – political and technological questions: One, striking the balance between limiting hate speech and protecting the first amendment, and two, combatting the spread of non-human “bots” across the platform.
To the first point, like Reddit and several other prominent media platforms, Twitter has recently taken to banning “alt-right” accounts, or those that use the platform as a means of spreading radical, racist rhetoric. Twitter has also updated its language regarding abusive and violent speech and the spread of graphic language and images; the breadth and depth of these changes have been substantial, and have faced equally strong backlash from all sides of the spectrum. Some claim that Twitter hasn’t gone far enough in combatting abuse, others call its new policies draconian and restrictive. Ultimately, it remains to be seen just how the platform – and its users – will change under the new policies.
The other big problem facing Twitter doesn’t come from people. Well, it does, just far fewer than you may think. We’re talking about the rise of “bots,” or dummy Twitter accounts automated to respond to other tweets across the platform. While spambots have always had a place in the Twitter landscape, they’ve come to new light in recent months thanks to – you guessed it – politics. Left wing and right wing trolls alike have taken to unleashing hundreds of bots – some are playful, some are cruel, some are supportive to certain politicians, and some encourage Twitter users to buy a politicized coffee mug that may not actually exist.
The spread of these bots has massively impacted real users’ experience on Twitter. For instance, there is now an arms race of sorts among techies to create “first response” software, which ensures that a certain twitter account – likely a bot – will automatically be the first to respond to a tweet, every single time. How will marketers be able to keep up in a landscape that’s increasingly about quantity and noise, rather than quality? How much longer will real users be willing to spend their time on a platform that’s looking increasingly like a wasteland of hacky bot accounts, rather than a fruitful place for conversation?
The bright spot in the Twittersphere? In many ways, Twitter has made great strides towards improving the actual act of tweeting, without sacrificing what makes the platform unique. Users can now retweet themselves and create threaded tweets more easily, while other changes allow users tag others and include multimedia, including GIFs and video, without cutting into the platform’s 140-character limit.
On the other hand, CEO Jack Dorsey has appeared more than willing to ditch that whole 140-character thing altogether; changes last year that made the algorithm non-chronological were met with withering disdain; the live-streaming capabilities of Periscope have largely been aped by Facebook and now Instagram; and, sadly, Vine, once the shining jewel in the Twitter crown, is as dead as a doornail, never to loop again.
Snapchat has always taken a “blink and you’ll miss it” approach to social networking. But now, that old adage might just apply to the platform’s future in the industry.
Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, Inc., is in the process of filing for its public offering with the SEC, meaning that stock may be up for sale as soon as March. That’s good news, right? Well, the IPO is coming at a tricky time for Snap, Inc., whose flagship brand is facing stiffer competition from Instagram than ever before, thanks to the developments that we discussed earlier, like Instagram Stories and Instagram Live. Snapchat’s growth rate has stalled precipitously since Instagram started rolling out these features.
On the other hand, Snapchat is still very much in the zeitgeist, particularly for younger audiences; remember when Team Kimye brought down the mighty Taylor Swift through a particularly pointed series of Snaps? You won’t see that kind of dishy celebrity fight on WhatsApp or LinkedIn any time soon. And while Snapchat’s growth may be stunted, the app still had more than 160 million daily users at the end of 2016, and those users are particularly loyal to the app, with most visiting more than 18 times a day.
So, Snapchat is driving quickly toward the edge of a cliff, set to either stall out into obsolescence, or hit the ledge and just keep ascending to new heights. The future of the app may well depend on what its creators do in the very near future.
To that end, Snap, Inc. spent much of 2016 on Spectacles, sunglass-shaped gadgets that allow users to record and share first-person videos via Snapchat. Heralded as either an innovative piece of tech or a silly gimmick, depending on what tech blog you happened to be reading, Spectacles nonetheless made plenty of waves last year. As for the app itself, Snapchat has recently undergone some interface changes intended to make the app slightly more accessible to newcomers (i.e., older audiences and marketing pros), including a universal search bar.
LinkedIn has long been considered the stodgy and buttoned-up social media network; don’t look for it to try to upend its identity or reach for younger audiences in the years ahead. Instead, we actually expect LinkedIn to double down on its status as a network for professional and B2B connections – with a few compelling design and functionality tweaks layered on top.
January of 2017 saw LinkedIn unveil its first major design update in some time – certainly since being acquired by Microsoft in 2016 for more than $26 billion. With that in mind, the refreshed LinkedIn seems to be pushing for greater integration with Microsoft: You may start to see LinkedIn’s vast data banks integrated into Microsoft’s contact management platforms and its Office 365 productivity service.
But that’s all happening “off the island,” so to speak. What’s in store for your user experience on LinkedIn itself? The overhauled design boasts a more streamlined, less cluttered look that immediately brings Facebook’s interface to mind. The universal search bar allows for more refined searches of people, jobs, companies, and groups, thanks to more sophisticated filter features; LinkedIn’s built-in analytics, meanwhile, have been bulked up, giving users more insight into who’s actually engaging with their content and updates.
In short, LinkedIn – and its massive new parent company – don’t seem to want to change the site’s reputation as the place where businesses and professionals interact online; instead, it’s doubling down on features that will empower users to facilitate better connections and truly put their best foot forward online.
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