Social Media Will Look Different, and Better, in the 2020s

Don't worry, we aren't stuck with IG influencers forever

Warning: this article has no mentions of epidemics, pandemics or any other demics. But given what’s going on, it seems pretty timely.

America’s first commercial airline flight took off on May 23, 1926 carrying a total of two passengers. The two sat atop US mail sacks, brought their own parachutes and relieved themselves in a tin cup. As aviation historian Robert Serling writes, “they took off at 9:30am and five hours later landed at Las Vegas to refuel. Redman and Tomlinson staggered out of the plane to stretch their legs and would have been forgiven if they had refused to reboard; for a good portion of the trip they had flown through a dust storm, and both passengers were pale from fatigue and nervousness”.

Image result for first flight western airlines 1926
In the eternal words of Geto Boys, “Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta”

It feels like social media, since its inception has been one long dust storm and two decades in, we are, collectively, pale and fatigued.

The early years of Social Media 1.0 (SM 1.0), which I will define here as the early 2000s, came with much fanfare. But shortly thereafter we realized there were real drawbacks to the newfangled technology. In the 2010s, as commercialization drove more aggressive user engagement strategies, criticism of social media reached fever pitch.

The criticisms are, by now, quite familiar: SM platforms foster insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, reinforce feelings of social isolation, promote cyberbullying, reduce productivity for individuals and teams, distort healthy perception of body image… and the list goes on.

But before grabbing our pitchforks…

First, SM 1.0 brings a lot of good with it too, much of which keeps us coming back. 

  1. It has completely normalized communicating with friends and relatives far away. Particularly now in the time of social distancing, we have social media to thank for being able to easily check-in on friends and relatives, attenuate our own loneliness and maintain our sanity.

  2. It makes it easier than ever to make new friends, especially around shared interests.

  3. It strengthens weak(er) connections. As platforms begin to reward production of content over mere consumption (eg. TikTok, LinkedIn), they make it easier to strengthen connections to friends and family we haven’t been as engaged with.

  4. It provides a platform for important issues, whether that’s blowing the whistle on politicians and corporations, or starting social movements like #YesAllWomen or #BlackLivesMatter. Though there’s still a long way to go, it has never been easier and safer to be a whistleblower or organize a mass movement for change.

  5. It democratizes knowledge, art and product discovery. There has also never been a better time to discover new musicians, artists, makers, products or anything else, enabled by SM’s sharing and resharing features. The decentralization of knowledge wrested power away from gatekeepers (music labels, big box retailers, etc), provided a platform for up-and-coming creators and founders and, for consumers, made visible the long-tail of choice.

  6. It can be really wholesome. Sharing funny TikTok videos with your partner, watching a friend’s heartwarming proposal video, reading a colleague’s post about their obscure hobby… these are real moments and real connections, even if they’re made online.

Second, columnists, pundits and various people who get paid to have opinions love nothing more than to hate on new technology. It’s a time-honored social tradition that goes back many centuries. We see the same flawed logic over and over again: “[insert new popular technology] has [potential] negative ramifications [if abused] and therefore should be banned”.

It’s documented very thoroughly in this XKCD but a couple of fun examples to illustrate the point:

An article lamenting the rise of instant communication:

“Today’s intellectual condition is characterized by a brain incapable of normal working… in a large measure due to the hurry and excitement of modern life, with its facilities for rapid locomotion and almost instantaneous communication between remote points of the globe” [The Churchman, Vol. 71, 1895]

Another one complaining about newspapers’ addictive engagement tactics:

“The managers of sensational newspapers… do not try to educate their readers and make them better, but tend to create perverted tastes and develop vicious tendencies. The owners of these papers seem to have but one purpose and that is to increase their circulation” [Medical Brief, Vol. 26, 1898]

Also, In the 1800s, when Chess went mainstream in the UK, it was decried as an antisocial game that, if unchecked (hah), may lead to real degradation of human relationships.

Chess GIF
Maybe they had a point

We are seeing the same pattern here. Although the negative impacts are very real, the outright dismissal of social media is a knee-jerk reaction that follows a deep historical tradition of failing to consider the broader context.

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A False Dichotomy

Today’s debate about social media is mostly divided along two camps. It’s viewed either as:

  1. A malevolent power that’s ripping the fabric of society, or

  2. A technology that we can live with if used in moderation (advice we promptly ignore)

The dichotomy between no social media vs. what we have today is a false one though. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about being able to connect to anyone, anytime. Social media does not come, a priori, with dopamine abuse, cyberbullying, a rise in loneliness; it’s that we are finally recognizing these collectively, which is the first step toward resolving them. I predict a new wave of connectivity is coming which will build on the strengths of SM 1.0 while attenuating its worst offences.

Given how small of a speck we are in the context of human history, even just today’s consistent interaction across tribes, cultures and social norms is an extremely new phenomenon. For the vast majority of history (we’re talking 99.9%), there were very few ideas that did not come from a select few gatekeepers — kings, landowners, religious leaders, publishers, etc. Neither ideas nor individuals were ever afforded the kind of platforms SM offers today. This means that, for the first time ever, all sorts of ideas and content has become public: good, thought-provoking, crazy, fake, malevolent, wholesome. But as a society, we have very little experience dealing with public information that can be fake or useful or hurtful at today’s scale.

Over time, we will gain experience sorting through it while, at the same time, developing a better understanding of the consequences of the laissez faire attitude we’ve held till now.

For context, the first manned flight took place in 1903. It would be 23 years until the first commercial flight took off. It took many decades of iterative improvements, the building of large-scale infrastructure, R&D investment into new hardware, experimentation with business models; national and global aviation authorities had to be established, new legal norms codified, official flight paths inaugurated and so on before commercial aviation felt like a normalized, safe way to get around.

The Hype Cycle

The waves of exuberance and disillusion we are witnessing are captured in Gartner’s Hype Cycle. Except we’re used to it taking a handful of years. And it does — for individual companies and certain narrow parts of the economy.

But for significant, pervasive changes like those wrought by social media, it could take decades. The hype cycles we are seeing are for smaller components of the big picture, like the concept of ‘adding’ friends, having a feed, promoting posts, advertising, etc. Or we can conceive of each mini-cycle as a Friendster, a MySpace, a Facebooks, an IGs, a TikToks, each contributing its own learnings toward the macro hype cycle that is social media.

More and more we’re becoming disillusioned and losing trust in the platforms on offer today. But I believe that SM 1.0 is an important, if clumsy, step toward the hyperconnectivity that underlies most progressive visions of a better world.

What SM 2.0 Might Look Like

Over the next few years and decades, we’ll develop norms around social media. We’ll learn to systematically identify and remove destructive behavior, build and empower regulatory bodies, create normative frameworks for balancing information sharing with curbing fake news and much more.

It’s unlikely to be one company that will bring us there. I think we’ll keep iterating till we have something we’re happier with. Although I don’t know what that future will look like, I have some thoughts on what the next iteration in this cycle might.

  • Tribe-based segmentation. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, I believe the next iteration will facilitate more authentic interactions among like-minded people who face similar challenges. 

    We’re already starting to see this happen: WANA for people with chronic illnesses, Nextdoor & Citizen for neighborhood communities, Discord for gaming, Peanut for women around fertility and motherhood, Elpha for women in tech, Dribbble for designers, among many others.

  • Authentication. There will be a mechanism to authenticate identity while maintaining some anonymity. Blind, the anonymous professional network, does this well by checking for relevant corporate email domains. Another way to do it is by only allowing posting after a certain time or above a certain threshold of upvoted contribution to make it harder to spam or make fake accounts. Longer term, one can imagine a system that creates ‘identity consistency’ scores across the various platforms one belongs to.

    This is quite important because having ‘authentic’ users participating gives people space to get more personal and be more vulnerable, which is the key to strong communities.

  • Accountability. Content will be traceable to the original contributor(s), similar to what TikTok does for videos. This is important to enforce behavioral standards and ban bad actors.

  • Moderation. Moderators who are active, known and follow a clear set of public guidelines crowdsourced from the community. Reddit (mostly) sets a good example of what this might look like. 

  • Single-tasking. Instead of being a community you check-in on multiple times a day in between other tasks, SM 2.0 will take some focus to participate in. It will reward meaningful content from close friends over viral content that can be consumed while binge watching Love Is Blind. 

    This also means the feed will have to be restructured, addressing the issues brought up by the virality algos (prioritizing personal relevance vs. simply funny or engaging) and the endless scroll (Instagram’s “All Caught Up” feature is a half-hearted step in the right direction).

  • New business model. Well-maintained social media platforms cost a lot to keep running, especially once they get popular. So far this has mostly been solved by ad-based models, which have forced platforms to compromise the core user experience. Either new ad-based variations  will arise or, more likely new business models will replace them. Subscription-based communities is an easy way to up the bar across the board but risk being exclusionary. Are there ways to make subs-based models non-exclusionary (eg. % of income, or based on consumption)? Are there innovative business models beyond ads and subscriptions that could work well?

SM 1.0 Is Not Here to Stay

Imagining a better world often takes effort and, well, imagination. It’s always easier to assume the status quo is here to stay. But I am confident that it’s not. Yes, in the short-term, changing behaviors is hard. But over the long term, it happens all of the time, from major paradigms like slavery to daily behaviors like smoking. We are already beginning to see efforts to curb the negative impact of social media -- platforms removing likes, setting self-imposed time limits on usage, restructuring feeds.

If we look at history, a very clear pattern emerges: we first develop a technology that promotes fundamental changes to our social organization, values and morals, and then we race to develop frameworks around those. This time is no different. We’ll get there.

Like my writing? Interested in optimistic essays about the future? Fan of pineapples? If you said yes to any of the above, sign up and share below!

PS. I promised to sprinkle in a little bit of hip-hop. My favorite read from the last couple of weeks dissects Watch the Throne’s long-lasting impact on the genre.