Social media is dead. Long live social media

Mark Zuckerberg. Source: AFP

I originally wrote this column back in December for Dolfin’s client magazine, Dolfin Quarterly. Given today’s news of Facebook’s second pivot, I thought it might be interesting to share it with you here. Keen to hear your thoughts on the future of social media.

As I stared at the audience from the stage of Investment Week’s Marketing & Social Media conference recently, their appetite for a concluding insight was palpable. My peers on the closing panel — from Deutsche Bank, Pictet Asset Management, and Schroders — had all said intelligent things about how their organisations leverage social media to engage their audiences. Indeed, like all the speakers that day, I too had made a strong case for social media: its targeted, ‘opt-in’ nature; its humanity; its measurability. But then it hit me: I think social media is dead.

User growth and engagement rates at the likes of Twitter and Facebook have plateaued. For the first time, the majority of US internet users between the ages of 12 and 17 won’t use Facebook once a month this year. This reflects a broader shift which, when you consider the events of the last 12 months or so, now seems inevitable. Teens are hyper aware of their mobile addiction and app consumption patterns. They are trying to cut the habit. Western consumers in North America and Europe seem particularly prone to leaving social media as Millennials mature and “get over” social media as an exercise in pointless digital consumption.

The era of anyone trusting social media for news are well and truly over.

Even worse than being a waste of time though, social media is now increasingly being identified as detrimental to mental health and — ironic given the lofty goals of trailblazers such as Google (“Don’t be evil”) and Facebook (“Bring the world closer together”) — liberal democracy itself. It has played a significant role in getting Trump elected in the US and bringing about Brexit in the UK. Worse, it appears to have enabled malicious interference by governments in the affairs of other sovereign states. The era of anyone trusting social media for news are well and truly over.

On a more personal level, many social media users now realise that they have surrendered their personal data, effectively becoming the only product on these networks, and got very little in return. Poisoned politics, misinformation and data harvesting mean users feel cheated by the social media companies. What trust once existed has completed eroded. In short, in the words of tech futurist Michael K. Spencer, “we went from over-sharing to over-consuming to not caring at all.”

So what happens next? There is a clear trend for more privacy and better quality — both of which people are willing to pay a fair price for rather than surrender information for. People want to feel in control again.

Social media as we know it is dying and will be replaced by something more private, more focused and much more valuable.

My hunch is that the exodus from older apps such as Facebook, Twitter and even Instagram will be in favour of niche apps, ones that bring their users together in smaller, private communities of like-minded individuals. I agree with practical futurist Andrew Grill who earlier this year told Dolfin Diary that any new social media model must return data ‘sovereignty’ to the user. “We’re now five to seven years away from people truly owning and trading their own data,” he said.

The concluding insight that eluded me on stage recently then is this: social media as we know it is dying and will be replaced by something more private, more focused and I believe much more valuable. Social media is dead. Long live social media.