Since 2003, social media has grown to consume the web. In fact, social media is the Internet for many web users. It’s their primary tool to connect with friends, read the latest news, and discover new trends. But there’s a battle brewing behind this social bubblegum facade.
Social media is quickly developing attributes of the mob, as it muscles into the territory of traditional websites and standalone web services, forcing them to pay protection money or die a slow death. Okay, so the metaphor might sound outrageous now, but it’ll make more sense as you read on.
In this chapter of our Future of the Internet series, we explore the future trends in social media and the coming battle between fact and sentiment on the web.
Less self-promotion and more effortless self-expression
By 2020, social media will enter its third decade. That means its adolescence filled with experimentation, making poor life choices, and finding oneself will be replaced by a maturity that comes with getting one’s act together, understanding who you are, and what you’re meant to be.
The way this maturity will manifest itself on today’s top social media platforms will be driven by the experience of those generations who have grown up using them. Society has become more discerning about the experiences they're looking to gain from participating in these services, and that will continue to show moving forward.
Given the constant specter of social media scandals and social shaming that can arise from publishing ill-conceived or ill-timed posts, users are gaining interest in finding outlets to express their true selves without the danger of being harassed by the PC police or having long-forgotten posts judged by future employers. Users also want to share posts with friends without the excess social pressure of having a high follower count or needing excess likes or comments for their posts to feel valued.
Future social media users will demand platforms that help them better discover engaging content, while also allowing them to effortlessly share the content and moments that are important to them—but without the stress and self-censorship that comes along with attaining a certain amount of social validation.
The social media churn
Given the social media directive you just read, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the way we use our current social media platforms will be entirely different in five to ten years time.
Instagram. One of Facebook’s breakout investments, Instagram has gained its popularity not by being a place where you dump all your photos (ahem, Facebook), but a place where you upload only those particular photos that represent your idealized life and self. It’s this focus on quality over quantity, as well as its ease of use, which makes Instagram so engaging. And as more filters and better video editing features are introduced (to compete with Vine and Snapchat), the service will continue its aggressive growth well into the 2020s.
However, like Facebook with its visible follower counts, likes, and comments, Instagram indirectly promotes a social stigma to low follower counts and to publishing posts that gain little support from your network. This core functionality goes against the public’s increasing social media preferences, leaving Instagram vulnerable to competitors.
Twitter. In its current form, this 140-character social platform will gradually see its target user base bleed away as they find alternative services to replace its core competencies, such as: Discovering news in real time (for many people, Google News, Reddit, and Facebook do this well enough); communicating with friends (messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, and Line do this far better), and following celebrities and influencers (Instagram and Facebook). Moreover, Twitter's limited individualized controls leaves select users vulnerable to harassment from Internet trolls.
The company's current status as a publicly traded company will only increase the rate of this decline. With heightened investor pressure to attract new users, Twitter will be forced into the same position as Facebook, where they must keep adding new features, displaying more varied media content, pumping more ads, and changing their display algorithms. The goal, of course, will be to attract more casual users, but the result will be to alienate its original, core user base not looking for a second Facebook.
There is a high likelihood that Twitter will stick around for another decade or so, but there is also a high likelihood that it will be bought out by a competitor or conglomerate in the not too distant future, especially if it stays a publicly traded company.
Snapchat. Unlike the social platforms described above, Snapchat is the first app truly built for the generations born after 2000. While you can connect with friends, there aren’t any like buttons, heart buttons, or public comments. It’s a platform designed to share intimate and fleeting moments that disappear once consumed. This content type creates an online environment that encourages a more authentic, less filtered (and thus easier) sharing of one’s life.
With roughly 200 million active users (2015), it’s still relatively small compared to the world’s more established social platforms, but considering it only had 20 million followers in 2013, it’s fair to say its growth rate still has some rocket fuel left for the long haul—that is, until the next Gen Z social platform comes out to challenge it.
The social rest. For the sake of time, we left out talking about the social media titans from China, Japan, and Russia, as well as popular western niche platforms like LinkedIn and Pinterest (see 2013 rankings). Most of these services will continue to survive and gradually evolve far into the next decade, either due to their large network effects or their well-defined niche utility.
Messaging apps. As many Millennials and Gen Z’s will attest, it’s almost rude to call someone these days. Younger generations prefer less obtrusive texting services to communicate, keeping voice calls or face-timing as a last resort (or for your SO). With services like Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp allowing more forms of content (links, images, audio files, file attachments, GIFs, videos), messaging apps are stealing usage time away from traditional social media platforms—a trend that will accelerate into the 2020s.
Even more interesting, as more people shift to mobile over desktop, it's likely that messaging apps will also become the next big search engine interface. Imagine an Artificial Intelligence-powered chatbot that you can chat with verbally or text questions to (like you would a friend); that chatbot would then answer your question by scouring search engines on your behalf. This will represent a transition interface between the search engines of today and the Virtual Assistants you'll read about in the next chapter.
Video. Year over year, people are watching more and more video, largely at the expense of written content (sigh). To meet this video demand, video production is exploding, especially since content publishers are finding video easier to monetize via ads, sponsorships, and syndication than written content. YouTube, Facebook videos, and a whole host of video and live streaming apps are leading the way towards transforming the web into next the TV.
The next big thing. Virtual Reality (VR) will have a big year in 2017 and onwards, representing the next big form of media content that will grow in popularity throughout the 2020s. (We have an entire chapter devoted to VR later in the series, so look there for details.)
Next, Holograms. By the early 2020s, new smartphone models will have basic holographic projectors attached to them. Initially, the holograms used will be akin to sending emoticons and digital stickers, essentially small animated cartoons or notifications that hover above the phone. But as the technology progresses, video face-timing will give way to holographic video chats, where you see the caller’s head, torso, or full body projected above your phone (and desktop).
Finally, future social media platforms will emerge to share fun and creative VR and holographic content with the masses.
And then we come to Facebook
I’m sure you were wondering when I’d get to the social media elephant in the room. At roughly 1.15 billion monthly active users as of 2015, Facebook is the world’s largest social media platform. And frankly, it will most likely remain that way, especially as the Internet finally reaches the majority of the world’s population by the mid-2020s. But growth in developing countries aside, its longer-term growth prospects will face challenges.
Growth among certain populations, such as China, Japan, Russia, will remain flat to negative as pre-existing domestic, culturally-authentic social media platforms (RenRen, Line, and VKontakte respectively) grow more dominant. In Western countries, the use of Facebook will enter its second decade, potentially leading to a feeling of staleness among its many users.
The situation will be worse among those born after 2000 who have never known a world without social media and already have a multitude of social media alternatives to choose from. Many in these younger cohorts won’t feel the same social pressures to use Facebook as preceding generations have because it’s no longer new. They haven’t played an active part in shaping its growth, and worse, their parents are on it.
These changes will force Facebook to transition from being the fun “it” service to becoming a necessary utility. Ultimately, Facebook will become our modern phonebook, a media repository/scrapbook to document our lives, as well as the Yahoo-like web portal (for many, this is already the case).
Of course, connecting with others isn’t all we do on Facebook, it’s also a place where we discover interesting content (re: the Yahoo comparison). To combat its waning user interest, Facebook will start integrating ever more features into its service:
- It’s already integrated videos into its users’ feeds (quite successfully mind you), and live streaming videos and events will see huge growth on the service.
- Given its wealth of personal user data, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to one day see Facebook streaming movies and scripted television—potentially partnering with top television networks and film studios to go head-to-head with services like Netflix.
- Similarly, it could potentially start taking ownership stakes in a number of news publishing and media production companies.
- Moreover, its recent Oculus Rift purchase also indicates a long-term bet on VR entertainment becoming a large part of its content ecosystem.
The reality is Facebook is here to stay. But while its strategy of becoming the central hub for sharing every content/media type under the sun will help it retain its value among its current users, its pressure to bloat itself with features for mass market appeal and growth will ultimately limit its pop culture relevance over the coming decades—that is, unless it goes all in on one big power play.
But before we explore that play, we first have to understand the other big player on the web: Search engines.
Search engines’ search for truth
For decades, search engines have been the Internet’s workhorses, helping the masses find content to meet their informational and entertainment needs. Today, they largely work by indexing every page on the web and judging the quality of each page by the number and quality of outside links pointed at them. Generally speaking, the more links a webpage gets from outside websites, the more search engines believe it contains quality content, thus pushing the page to the top of search results.
Of course, there are a variety of other ways search engines—Google, chief among them—rank webpages, but the “link profile” measure continues to dominate roughly 80-90 percent of a webpage’s online worth. This is set to change drastically.
Given all the epic advancements in big data, machine learning, and data storage that have occurred over the past five years (discussed further in later parts of this series), search engines now have the tools to drastically improve search results by a trait more profound than a webpage’s link profile—webpages will soon be ranked by their truthfulness.
There are a lot of websites that peddle misinformation or information that’s extremely biased. Anti-science reporting, political attacks, conspiracy theories, gossip, fringe or extremist religions, severely biased news, lobbyist or special interests—websites that deal in these forms of content and messaging provide their niche readerships with warped and oftentimes inaccurate information.
But due to their popularity and sensationalist content (and in some cases, their use of dark SEO witchcraft), these websites get enormous amounts of external links, boosting their visibility on search engines and thereby further spreading their misinformation. This increased visibility of misinformation is not only bad for society in general, it also makes using search engines more difficult and less practical—hence the growing investment in developing Knowledge-Based Trust scores for all webpages.
The sad fallout of truthfulness
Being the dominant player in the space, Google will likely spearhead the truthfulness search engine revolution. In fact, they’ve already started. If you’ve used Google to research a fact-based question over the last two years, you might have noticed the answer to your question conveniently summarized in a box at the top of your search results. These answers are pulled from Google’s Knowledge Vault, a massive online fact hoard gleaned from the web. It’s also this growing Vault that Google will eventually use to rank websites by their factual content.
Using this Vault, Google has begun experimenting with ranking health-based search results, so doctors and medical experts can better find accurate medical information, rather than all the anti-vaccine bunk that’s making the rounds these days.
This is all well and good—but there’s one problem: People don’t always want the truth. In fact, once indoctrinated with a bias or belief, people actively search for the latest information and news that support their fallacies, ignoring or discrediting more factual sources as misinformation for the masses. Moreover, believing in niche biases or beliefs also gives people a sense of purpose, control, and belonging to an idea and community larger than themselves—it’s similar to religion in a way, and it's a feeling many people prefer.
Given this sad truth about the human condition, it’s not hard to predict the fallout that will happen once truthfulness is finally baked into search engines. For most people, this algorithmic change will make search engines far more useful for their everyday needs. But for those niche communities that believe in specific biases or beliefs, their experience with search engines will worsen.
As for those organizations that peddle in bias and misinformation, they will see their web traffic (along with their ad revenue and public profile) take a sizeable hit. Seeing a threat to their business, these organizations will draw on donations from their avid memberships to launch class action lawsuits against search engines, based on the following questions:
- What really is truth and can it really be measured and programmed?
- Who decides what beliefs are right or wrong, especially for topics involving politics and religion?
- Is it the place of tech companies to decide how to present or educate the masses?
- Are the “elites” who run and fund these tech companies trying to control the population and their free speech?
Obviously, some of these questions are bordering on conspiracy theory territory, but the impact of the questions they pose will generate a great deal of public resentment against search engines. After a few years of legal battles, search engines will create settings to allow people to customize their search results based on interests and political affiliations. Some might even display fact and opinion based search results side by side. But by then, the damage will be done—many of those individuals who prefer to believe in the niche will look elsewhere for less “judgemental” search assistance.
The rise of sentiment search engines
Now back to Facebook: What power play can they pull off to maintain their cultural relevance?
Google has built up its dominance in the search engine space due to its ability to suck up every piece of content on the web and organize it in a useful way. However, Google isn’t able to suck up everything on the web. In fact, Google only monitors two percent of the data accessible over the web, just the tip of the proverbial data iceberg. That’s because most data is protected by firewalls and passwords. Everything from corporate finances, government documents, and (if you set your permissions properly) your password-protected social media accounts are invisible to Google.
So we have a situation where a large minority of information-biased individuals are becoming jaded by traditional search engines and are seeking alternatives to finding the information and news they want to hear. Enter Facebook.
While Google collects and organizes the freely accessible web, Facebook collects and organizes the personal data within its protected network. If this were any other social network, this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but Facebook’s present and future size, combined with the quantity of personal data it collects about its users (including those from its Instagram and Whatsapp services) means Facebook is poised to become a massive and unique challenger in the search engine arena, and unlike Google that will focus its search algorithms toward truth, Facebook will focus its search algorithms toward sentiment.
Like Google’s Knowledge Vault, Facebook has already begun development on its social Graph Search. It’s designed to search for answers to your questions based on the collective knowledge and experience of those users within Facebook’s constellation of web properties. For example, Google might struggle with questions like: What’s the best new restaurant in my city this week? What new songs might my best friend like that are out right now? Who do I know how's visited New Zealand? Facebook’s Graph Search, however, will have a better handle on how to answer these questions using data collected from your friend network and anonymous data from its general user base.
Launched around 2013, Graph Search hasn’t had the warmest reception as questions surrounding privacy and usability continue to dog the social network. However, as Facebook builds its experience base within the web search space—along with its investments into video and content publishing—Graph Search will come into its own.
The fragmented web of the early 2020s
Thus far, we’ve learned we’re heading into a period where effortless and authentic self-expression on social media is the prize, and where our growing mixed feelings over the power search engines exert over access to information may impact the way we discover content.
These trends are a natural outgrowth of our collective and maturing experience with the web. For the average person, the Internet is a space to discover news and ideas, while also safely sharing moments and feelings with those we care about. And yet, for many, there’s still this feeling that the web’s growing size and complexity is becoming overly intimidating and hard to navigate.
In addition to social media and search engines, we also use a large variety of other apps and services to navigate our interests online. Whether it’s visiting Amazon to shop, Yelp for restaurants, or TripAdvisor for travel planning, the list goes on. Today, the way we search for the information and content we want is extremely fragmented, and as the rest of the developing world gains access to the web over the coming decade, this fragmentation will only accelerate.
Out of this fragmentation and complexity, a new method of engaging with the Internet will emerge. Still in its infancy, this method is already available and will become the mainstream norm in developed countries by 2025. Sadly, you’ll have to read on to the next part in the series to learn more about it.
Future of the Internet series
Mobile Internet Reaches the Poorest Billion: Future of the Internet P1
Rise of the Big Data-Powered Virtual Assistants: Future of the Internet P3
Your Future Inside the Internet of Things: Future of the Internet P4
The Day Wearables Replace Smartphones: Future of the Internet P5
Your Addictive, Magical, Augmented Life: Future of the Internet P6
Virtual Reality and the Global Hive Mind: Future of the Internet P7
Humans not allowed. The AI-only Web: Future of the Internet P8
Geopolitics of the Unhinged Web: Future of the Internet P9