The Authenticity Shift in Social Media

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Cultural changes can take a while, but less so when it comes to digital culture. They come about through societal learning, where, over time, a community or society, teaches one another what is and isn’t acceptable. Much how parents teach a child about acceptable behaviours in public. We’ve been doing this, as we learn at a massive scale, what is and isn’t right in social media. Think about taking pictures with your smartphone of other people in public or at parties. Today, we tend to check with others if it’s okay. A lot of parties today ask you to put your mobile away. Taking pictures without permission is frowned upon. We’ve slowly taught this social etiquette over many years. And now, another shift is happening.

The shift is towards authenticity and reality. This will impact how brands advertise and promote their products. It is also a shift that could have deep impacts on social media platforms from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok to Twitter and beyond. A notable new app that is catching on in this space is BeReal out of France and according to data from Apptopia it has grown 315% with the majority of growth just this year. The primary users are Gen Z, although there is a good chunk of Millennials starting to use the app. BeReal allows one post per day. You have 2 minutes max and everyone gets to see your post. it uses both the front and rear cameras, forcing a sense of reality. Some influencers will likely figure workarounds to try and be more than they really are. But the point is, BeReal, like Wordle and Twitter Spaces, relies more on scarcity.

There’s a bit of a trend towards apps and social media tools that focus more on scarcity and authenticity. Much of this is being driven by Gen Z, a.k.a. Zoomers. Largely because they have more buying power and a larger audience influence than Millennials and Boomers are less influential when it comes to social media and eCommerce activities, although that is changing too. Gen X is sandwiched between Millennials and Boomers, and although they have higher disposable incomes, marketers tend to ignore them as they’re a smaller demographic.

So why a shift towards more realism and authenticity in social media apps? Digital culture in a nutshell. Remember the early days of social media? It was “share everything and anything, anytime, anywhere.” These tools were new, there were no playbooks and everyone was figuring things out. It was oversharing. As social media tools progressed and we started to tell each other what to do, where to do it and how, we moved into the age of the influencer. We carefully curated our content and started to present an almost alternative reality. We also became more divisive and then the algorithms decided showing negative content was more profitable for the social media platforms than reality and anything nice. The algorithms took a page from traditional news media: If it bleeds it leads.

My netnographic research and that of others, however, is starting to show a shift again. While the algorithms haven’t changed much, people have. Hence apps like BeReal. Consumers have seen the results of research such as Facebook did about how Instagram made teens feel more depressed and anxious. Meta, as usual, tried to slip that under the corporate rug. But people have conversations about what they’re seeing and how they want to change, and they’re doing it via social media. While the platforms themselves are sort of paying attention to this, other startups are taking more notice and creating apps and tools. Brands are as well and they’re putting pressure on the social media platforms.

There have been movements generated by humans on these platforms, such as the CelebFace account calling out celebrities using photo edits and surgeries. Or the “Instagram vs. Reality” challenge. Many tend to work in the short term but end up being a bit cloudy in terms of actual changes. But taken together, along with parents and others teaching their kids and Gen Z being much more aware of how they’re being manipulated, are signalling a change.

All of this presents a significant challenge to brands in how they engage in these platforms and very much so for the major social media platforms themselves. When these platforms, like any large company, reaches a certain size, innovation, change and adaptation to market trends tends to slow significantly. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have shareholders and many employees. Turning the ship around is harder. This allows disruptors who are truly playing to win, to edge in and take audiences away. TikTok did this brilliantly and neither Twitter nor Instagram were able to adapt. Facebook is seeing audience engagements decrease, ad campaigns be less effective and is distracted by it’s so far failing focus on the metaverse.

While it’s very early days for this digital cultural shift, the conversations taking place on platforms like Reddit and on Twitter, are indicating a genuine desire towards apps and platforms that respect privacy more, are tired of so much advertising and high degrees of negativity on their feeds. With brands increasingly following the social shifts in cultural groups like Gen Z, the major social media platforms have a significant challenge ahead of them. New entrants like BeReal are starting to chip away. If they become movements and brands always go where the market is, major social media platforms are at risk. This is an exciting sea change to watch. Both consumers and brands may also be better off for it as well.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious