The State of Social Media in 2016

A Year In Review

So! The year which has seen everything from Snapbots to chatbots has come to a close. It’s been an interesting one. I’ve tasked myself with distilling the year’s key happenings into 10 points.

Let’s dive in.

1. Video, everywhere

Yeah, I know. ‘Video’ has been popping up in every end-of-year list for the past five years. Forgive me though — because 2016 was the year that video actually took off.

Snapchat are now reportedly seeing 10 billion video views every day, whilst Facebook announced that they had just hit 8 billion for the same metric.

These are undeniably impressive figures, but why has it taken until now for video to really dominate?

To start, brands and media companies are investing more time and resource into video creation. They’re beginning to understand that this is what’s required to play the social media game. They’ve also understood how to actually make videos that are mobile-first — they’re silent, and they’re not landscape. Next stop, vertical video…circular video…360 video?

And it’s not just about the brands. The platforms themselves have released key features that bring the barrier to entry for creating great video content right down. The surge of live video content this year is a direct result of Facebook putting it right at the top of their list of priorities. Combine that with Instagram releasing their Stories feature that makes ‘video’ content accessible to the masses — and you can see why this year has been so big for video.

2. Facebook became relevant, again

Think back to this time last year, and many people were prophesying the end of the Facebook era. Young people were leaving the platform in droves, supposedly. It was outdated and uncool. Facebook were done.

This year they’ve bounced back in a big way. They’ve innovated (or copied, depending on your viewpoint) with some new headline features that have given the platform more sticking power. In doing so, they’ve started their transformation from a social network into a technology company.

Smart acquisitions (Whatsapp, Instagram, Oculus) are beginning to pay real dividends with the shifting landscape, whilst live video and messenger have strengthened their core offering.

The big learning? Everyone uses Facebook. They might not share content in public, and they may not scroll through the news feed, but the vast majority of people have at least one feature that keeps them logging into the platform.

3. The decline of Twitter

This time last year, I was optimistic about the future for Twitter. I thought that Jack Dorsey returning would bring the ruthless product innovation that Twitter lacked, that the release of ‘Moments’ would be a resounding success, and that the Periscope acquisition would be the silver bullet that gave users a reason to keep logging in.

It’s fair to say I was wrong on this one. Growth has been tough, stock prices have dipped, lay offs have had to happen. To top it all off, they failed to find a buyer — a series of rejections that played out in the most public way possible. It’s not been pretty.

These internal issues haven’t been played out in a vacuum — we’re definitely seeing an real impact on the level of user activity on Twitter.

To illustrate this point, here’s a graph showing the average volume of messages we’ve received across the past two years for our long standing clients:

Twitter is dying for brands.

It’s pretty evident that people are using Twitter, at least to engage with brands, less and less. They have a tough year coming up in order to stop the slide.

4. Snap had a year of transition

Let’s have a look back at Snap’s big moves this year:

  1. They unveiled Memories, a way to store photos and videos — a clear departure from their ‘everything ephemeral’ stance.
  2. They launched Spectacles, their first foray into hardware — simultaneously debuting a new circular format of video.
  3. They launched their Ads API, allowing Snapchat ads to be sold by third parties for the first time.
  4. They renamed themselves ‘Snap’, with a new tagline: ‘a camera company’.

I see all of the above as strong strategic moves as they head towards their IPO in 2017. Snap have matured this year — anyone who is still not taking them seriously is severely mistaken. There’s a reason why Facebook have made fourteen attempts to mimic key features — they’re extremely worried.

For Snap, 2016 was about preparing for the biggest year in their history.

5. Stories as the ‘new’ news feed

One of the biggest stories this year was Instagram ‘stealing’ the stories feature from Snapchat.

Kevin Systrom spoke to The Verge shortly afterwards, and gave one of my favourite quotes of the year:

“My thesis is a story is a slideshow format. Just like when Facebook invented the [News] Feed, and every social product was like, ‘That’s an innovation, how do we adapt that to our network?’ You’re going to see stories pop up in other networks over time, because it’s one of the best ways to show visual information in chronological order.”

This quote says it all. Stories are the ‘new’ news feed, because they’re fundamentally a brilliant way of consuming content. They’re full screen, they’re immersive, they’re chronological.

When Instagram copied stories, it legitimised it as the way of creating and consuming content in 2016. Expect to see more platforms adopting stories in the future.

6. Social is getting darker

As 2015 drew to a close, this graph started appearing everywhere:

And rightly so, because it demonstrates that this big shift from public to private social that we’ve been talking about has already happened.

So what has this meant for social media in 2016? It got a lot darker. The vast majority of sharing now happens behind the scenes, in private messenger apps. According to RadiumOne, 84% of sharing happens in private. This is big.

This shift from public to private social media has huge implications for the social media industry. Our key challenge lies in demonstrating tangible value. Just as we seemed to be getting closer to reliably proving the ROI of social content, the rise of dark social throws a whole new spanner in the works. How can we measure what’s hidden?

2016 was the year that social went dark.

7. Instagram started the monetisation process

Back in 2012 when Facebook acquired Instagram, we knew that this would happen at some point. It was just a matter of time.

2016 was the year that they really started the ball rolling for the monetisation of Instagram. We’ve seen the following:

  1. The roll out of business profiles with improved analytics, customer service options, and in-app advertising.
  2. The announcement of shoppable tags, which will integrate e-commerce functionality into the app for the first time.
  3. The ability for brands to add links to their stories, signalling the end of ‘link in bio’.
  4. A vastly improved advertising offering.

All of the above with the clear goal of making the platform more attractive for brands — and therefore receiving a more significant chunk of marketing budgets.

Let’s take a look back to how Facebook played the monetisation game. First, they rolled out a load of features that make the platform so attractive to brands that they rely on it. Tick.

Next, gradually cut the organic reach completely so that advertising is no longer a nice-to-have but a necessary-to-have. We can expect this next year.

8. All news feeds went algorithmic

2016 was the year that every major social platform with a news feed turned on the algorithm — they started to serve content to users based on factors such as engagement and affinity, rather than in a chronological order.

Facebook have been serving content in this way for a long time now. In March, Twitter turned on the algorithmic timeline for everyone, to an incredible amount of resistance. In June, Instagram followed and did the same, to an equal amount of pushback.

As with many major changes, everyone hated it initially and then, slowly, it became the new normal. I believe it’s fundamentally a better way for a news feed to be served, but it has led to a big, open, important conversation about the impact of algorithms on our lives. Leading us to…

9. The “echo chamber” went mainstream

Or…the dark side of the algorithm. Unfortunately for Facebook, most of this discussion has centred around their platform.

Facebook found themselves at the heart of a series of controversies this year

First, we saw the trending topics scandal at the start of the year due to the lack of an algorithm for deciding which topics are newsworthy.

Then, we had fake news. A scandal which was diametrically opposed to trending topics in its nature, but equally worrying. It managed to perfectly demonstrate one key flaw in the Facebook news feed algorithm — that the most clickable content ranks the highest, and unfortunately, fake news is extremely clickable.

But these incidents weren’t isolated. This year, we had a collective epiphany. The combined shock of Brexit and Trump made one issue blindingly clear — we are all living our online lives in echo chambers that continuously reinforce themselves. And unless something big changes, they are here to stay.

Google search queries for ‘echo chamber’.

2016 was the year that the echo chamber entered the collective consciousness.

10. Convergence

Convergence is the big underlying theme of 2016. This was the year that all of the social platforms became extremely similar in nature. I’ve written about this before, but here’s the TL;DR:

  • Facebook, Twitter and Instagram now all have a live streaming product integrated into their platforms.
  • Instagram and Snapchat both now have Stories functionality, with Facebook messenger rumoured to be following. Twitter also rolled out Moments to everyone — a way to curate content in a chronological order.
  • Snapchat, the platform that once championed ephemerality throughout everything, released a product that allows you to store, search and share all of your photos and videos…forever.
  • Instagram, the platform for content that never gets deleted, rolled out ephemeral messaging.

Why is this happening? I think it’s because the era of social media has reached its mature stage. It’s no longer about using a specific platform for a unique feature that it offers — they all have the same features, because they all want to become as relevant to as many people as possible.


So… that’s 2016. It’s been a big year of change for social. I’d love to hear your view on the year — what has shifted your thinking? Tweet me at @callummccahon.

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