The Fragmentation of Social Media

Image by stokpic from Pixabay

In the early days of mass social media, an abundance of channels were coming online. Facebook was just opening up to everyone, Tumblr was a going concern, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, Mastodon and many others that have since fizzled and faded. If you were going to play seriously in the game of social media, you wanted to be everywhere. It was exhausting. Then things settled down a bit. The market sorted itself out as it always does. Twitter, Snap, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, later TikTok, became the mainstream channels.

Now, things are fracturing. Social media is getting messy again and it’s probably going to get a lot messier. While one may try to lay blame at the ego of a certain billionaire, it is not just him. The fracturing had already started. A shift in how societies and cultures use social media is underway. Why and what’s happening?

The current kerfuffle at Twitter is just one example. In the case of Twitter today, it is largely because an engineer took it over. Engineers, like Musk, are very intelligent. But Musk, like other engineers and especially software engineers, tend to take a problem solving approach to everything. It’s the hammer/nail thing. Musk lacks the ability to understand the complexities of sociocultural systems, which Twitter is a technology platform for.

To effectively run a social media platform today, one needs to understand humans, culture, societies and the complex sociocultural systems. It requires critical thinking approaches, not problem solving approaches. That the people involved in and responsible for, non-hardcore engineering were let go or resigned first is very telling. Musk, like Zuckerberg, are not known for their empathy or understanding of how cultures and societies work.

It is ironic that Musk and Zuck both lead companies that are very much about human communications, cultures and societies. They are “hard scientists” serving the “soft sciences”. It has not gone well. It’s very much like asking the plumber to wire your house. Fires are likely to happen.

That’s just two of the top social media channels and examples of what happens when the wrong minds are running a business and developing a product they shouldn’t be. To his credit, Zuck has tried to better understand how to run a business in a socioculturally complex context. Anyone running a social media platform at scale today is taking on a nightmare of complexity. Even this channel, Medium. And the anecdote that you “cannot please everyone all of the time…” holds very true.

The other shift is that we’re starting to figure out, as societies and cultures, how we want to use social media. Where it fits in our lives, how and when.

The next trend for social media? Not being there. Not using it. Or at least, a whole let less.

Smartphones are a good allegory. We used to wear them on our hips, talk loudly in restaurants and other public spaces sending social signals that yes, we were important enough to have a phone. Sadly, some still feel they’re special. Some people are late bloomers. Then we had those Bluetooth earpieces and everyone had blue blinking lights. Today, we often turn down our ring-tone, or just use silent as we can feel the vibration in our pocket or via a smartwatch. We may indeed stare at them incessantly in public spaces, but we are much quieter.

And so it is with social media. It is because of a number of factors, as things at scale like this, always are. We’ve grown tired of the trolls, the cyberbullies, the constant scams, hatred and vitriol. Because Facebook makes money from anger and hatred, they’ve not really wanted to solve for it. Same with any social media channel. News media have known this for decades. When the tech companies did try to solve it, they used of course, technology, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI). It did not work. AI is nowhere near being capable of handling the complexities of human society.

Yes, but TikTok you say! TikTok makes Facebooks privacy abuses look like a milk spill on the kitchen floor. It is the single most privacy abusing social media channel in the world, bar none. It has even circumvented Apple’s privacy requirements. Despite their denials, TikTok, who’s parent company is ByteDance, is partly owned by the Chinese state. But it too, will have its day.

I spend a lot of time researching and digging into social media. I’ve done so for well over a decade now. A shift is underway. People are increasingly both cautious and disingenuous in how they use social media and what they put there.

Social media channels promised to connect us and bring us closer. They did connect us, they did not bring us closer. The only social media channel that seems to have achieved any sense of connectivity and avoided so much toxicity, privacy violations and other scandals is Pinterest. But they’ve always had a more social sciences first approach. They could teach us a few things.

In the short term, as Twitter seems to be crashing and burning and people search for alternatives and continue to reject Facebook, it’s going to continue to fragment. Some platforms will benefit from ad dollars, others will fail. We are in for a messy period. But this is good. Any social media platform that puts humans first and technology second, will be in pole position to win significant market share. So what’s next? That’s another post.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

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