For better or worse, the big social media platforms have changed the way we interact with the world. Will they continue to wield such influence over the next decade?
Future historians will likely look back on the 2000s as, among other things, the decade that marked the rise of social media. In 2003, MySpace was launched. Then came Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) in 2004. In 2005, both YouTube and Bebo were founded. The following year, we saw the hatching of Twitter (NYSE: TWTR). Of course, some of these companies have performed better than others in the years since, but together, they changed how billions of people interact with the world. Throughout the 2010s, though, the world came to grips with some of the more troubling changes social media has brought about, including privacy issues and questionable electoral influence.
As a new decade dawns, a big question presents itself: what’s next for social media? Will we see more of the same problems, or are there major changes coming?
One way of addressing this question is to look at the long-term plans of individual social media giants. The largest and most controversial among these is, of course, Facebook. Along with its unbeatable “family” of services, including Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger, the Zuckerberg monster stood at the center of endless privacy issues in the past few years.
Faced with newcomers such as Snap (NYSE: SNAP) and TikTok, Facebook will need to make major changes to its policies surrounding privacy and electioneering if it is to win over new adopters. According to Facebook employee Joe Albanese, the company might just do that in the years ahead. There will be serious temptations to overcome, though, as AI-based data-gathering continues to gather pace, making it easier than ever for the globally-connected platform to convert its users into advertising gold.
The same dynamic holds true for Twitter, though the policies that will receive the most focus in the 2020s will probably be those related to speech codes. The platform’s status as the publisher of hot takes from celebrities, journalists, and world leaders is as yet unchallenged, meaning it will likely face further pressure from regulators across countries. Like YouTube, the platform will struggle to navigate between the constraints of regulation and the anarchic, unmediated ethos that brought it to fame.
In order to get a better sense of where social media is going, it’s also worth looking at the habits of Gen Z. Born roughly between 1995 and 2010, the successors to millennials have already displayed a preference for audio and video content over text. For instance, a recent poll found that the largest audience in the world of podcasting was aged between 15 and 24. With so many various podcasting services out there, it only seems a matter of time before one of the big platforms successfully integrates a podcast feature into its user interface.
Another force that will shape the future of social media will likely be China. With its enormous economy and rapidly growing technology hubs, China is already a digital media superpower. For now, though, most of the country’s major social media companies and products — such as the highly-integrated, Tencent-owned (HKG: 0700) app, WeChat — remain focused on the vast domestic market. In recent years, many commentators have focused on the efforts made by Western companies to expand into China, but in the 2020s, we will see what the reverse looks like when Chinese social media breaks into overseas markets.
If the past decade has proven anything, it has proved how hard future events can be to predict. However, there is enough discontent with the way platforms like Twitter and Facebook are run — and enough of a threat from China — to suggest that big changes need to be made if the social media players of today can still hold sway come 2030.
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