Social Media’s Future Is Closed

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Photo by elaine alex on Unsplash

Take a wander through your feeds in whatever social media channel(s) you follow. As you do, step back in your mind and look at the feed from a higher level. Notice how well the posts are curated? Or perhaps very generalist in nature. How much advertising there is and how much, well, rubbish. How much do you really trust those posts?

Social media is undergoing a significant change and it’s being hotly debated in a number of marketing industry publications and broader news media. Some say social media is dead. It is not. Far from it. But it is changing. Why?

I look first at what happened, then what’s happening and lastly, the upsides.

This is a great example of how a new technology at first changes culture, or primary aspects of culture and then culture in turn, changes the technology.

Some suggest that the earliest social media tool was Six Degrees which came out in 1997. It was perhaps a more accessible social media tool, but it was not the first. That honour goes to the hippies and the late 70’s with the BBS (Bulletin Board System), which is a very early version of what Reddit and other forums have become today.

So in some senses, digital social media is over 30 years old. Although there’s not much definitive work, yet, on how long it takes for a culture to adopt, adapt and then change technology to what it does become, this does fit economic cycles of our current capitalist system. Such as detailed in the seminal work of Dr. Carlota Perez.

Why Is Social Media Becoming Closed?

From a digital anthropology view, which applies cultural anthropology to our use of digital technologies and what it means to be human in a digital society, it would seem to be for several reasons.

As social media became more accessible and then more mobile through smartphone apps, society was quite enamoured with it. So we shared. Everything. Constantly. It was a nightmare at times for brands as consumers discovered they had a voice. Remember “United broke my guitar”? Probably the first major online reputation crisis to hit a brand.

Now, nearly two decades later, mass social media just isn’t that fun anymore in terms of a public square. From over-curated influencers and social anxieties over what to post, to toxic content and of course, massive volumes of advertising and marketers. And those snotty trolls lurking about. We tune out more than we tune in.

Hanging out at a party is fun. Up to a point. After a while, loud music, antics and silly people leave us wanting for the quiet of home. Or to connect with our social group in more intimate, safer spaces.

Cultural conflicts between platforms and users (a.k.a. humans) has increased. Such as the epic battle between Reddit and its community managers. Or Elon Musk and the Twitterverse. A core factor at play? Trust.

Trust lies at the heart of human social behaviours. How much we can trust someone or a group has long played a role in humanity’s very survival. It’s why we evolved complex social signalling when we meet one another in the real world. Systems that struggle to be replicated in the digital world.

Consumers have come to dislike being so highly targeted by brands and platforms, growing increasingly uncomfortable with their loss of agency, not just privacy. And breach of trust. The price for expression many have come to believe, is just too high.

What Does Closed Mean? Is It Better?

Cultures reaction? Retreat to more closed networks and apps. Ones harder for marketers to target them, perhaps with less ads or at least, less personalised, creepy ads or the same ads over and over again across platforms. This means increasingly turning to WhatsApp, Telegram, text and messaging groups like iMessage across Apple devices.

Places where we can avoid the toxicity of the digital public commons where the platforms seem to have given up on any idea of actually moderating seriously. It’s literally too expensive, too gargantuan and too much of a Gordian knot to untangle. And we can more easily trust those whom we know.

The first concern to some would mean we end up in echo chambers, the breeding ground of conspiracy theories and confirmation bias. To some degree, yes, this will happen, but it’s been happening for well over a decade, so this is unlikely to be any worse than it already is.

The broader benefit however, is that we spend less time in the public sphere and the toxicity that is overly present there today. Seeking more closed social networks is merely a reaction to rejecting what the platforms themselves haven’t been able to deal with, though they’ve tried.

It is in our nature to seek communal spaces in which we feel safer and able to participate with a degree of equity. If one is constantly fending off or fearing attacks, such social situations become untenable. Yes, free speech is important, but so are sociocultural norms and behaviours that help us interact socially in a way that benefits the majority.

When institutions fail broader society, cultural factors like norms, behaviours and customs start to kick in and the institution, in this case platforms like Facebook or Twitter (X), gets shoved aside. Broader society starts to reject aspects of a technology, or social order, and then begins, through sociocultural pressures, to change the institution(s) toward what the majority wants.

The challenge for these social media platforms will be monetizing them. Servers, infrastructure and the people that run them need money to work. Currently, the only way this happens is through advertising and the trading of personal data. If brands can’t reach into private networks, then they have no reason to advertise.

This may in fact, be okay. Much of digital advertising is a broken model. An increasingly hot issue in the advertising world. A move to more closed social networks may place the necessary pressures on the tech giants and ad industry to evolve. This move alone will significantly hamper Elon Musk’s idea for X to be a superapp.

Innovation for new models will be necessary. If you’re thinking crypto or Web3, no. These technologies hold some possibilities, but for now, can’t scale as a technology. Decentralisation will work in some instances, but struggle at scale.

How this will evolve is anyones guess, but while the major platforms will continue on, expect private online communities to be the rule, not the exception.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | Head of Marketing Innovation | Cymru