The post-social media era and the evolution of social networking

Here is a German version of this text.

A few months ago I published a critical personal evaluation of the current social media landscape. During a recent podcast exchange about the same topic in which I participated (in German), what got apparent was the need to distinguish between the two components that social media is made of: the media consumption, and the networking. The first one is primarily about content, the second one primarily about people. No matter how much my skepticism about the dynamics and long-term consequences of today’s social media world has grown lately, that doesn’t change the fact that I still very much appreciate social media’s capability to get to know interesting people, potential business partners or – very simple – new friends. Over the past 10 years, I have met a lot of great individuals thanks to social media. I certainly would not want to have missed that opportunity.

What I am describing here is the “networking” element of social media, which predated the other aspect, the consumption of content within the networked environment of social media platforms. In the early years of the so called Web 2.0, the focus was mainly on building contact lists, showcasing an online profile and on exchanging messages. The services which offered these opportunities such as Friendster, MySpace and even the early Facebook were labeled “communities” or “social networks”. Before the rise of these services, there were of course “instant messengers” such as ICQ or MSN. The term “social media” didn’t emerge until around 2008. What happened at that point?

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How social media came to be

Well, Facebook launched its news feed in 2006. Twitter appeared shortly after, also following a feed/stream approach to enable people to publish and consume content. Other services such as FriendFeed adopted a similar principle. The feed format enhanced the familiar social networking paradigm (featuring profiles, contact lists and messaging) with a convenient way to spread and consume content. Meanwhile, the broader public, media outlets and businesses started to discover the possibilities of using the feeds to broadcast information and to connect with others. These developments marked the birth of social media, which quickly became a well-established term. Simultaneously, usage of the term “social networking” decreased. Eventually, the trend that started back then culminated in the mess that social media is today.

Google searches for social networking (red) and social media.

If one, like me, is pessimistic about the current state of social media but does not want to give up on the benefits of its networking element, then a first consequence would have to be to clearly distinguish between “social media” and “social networking”. The verbal distinction won’t change anything right away, but using language accurately and adjusting it to changing circumstances is a first step.

However, the differentiation of the terminology is tricky, as illustrated by a recent statement by Pavel Durov, the former founder of Russian Facebook clone VK and current CEO of the popular messaging service Telegram. Bloomberg quotes Durov with the following words:

„Everyone a person needs has long been on messengers. It’s pointless and time-consuming to maintain increasingly obsolete friend lists on public networks. Reading other people’s news is brain clutter. To clear out room for the new, one shouldn’t fear getting rid of old baggage.”

The media outlet covers his point of view because Durov has just unfriended all of his contacts on VK. The author of the article interprets this symbolic move and the unstoppable rise of messaging as a sign of the demise of social networking. But messaging apps are also social networks.

Messaging apps are social networks, too

Exactly like on VK or Facebook, users of chat applications establish lists of friends and other types of contacts – either by syncing with their smartphones’s address books, or by manually adding users through user names. The contact list in WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal or Snapchat represents a part of the person’s social graph. However, a major difference to social media platforms is that on messaging apps, communication commonly happens in a one-to-one or one-to-few setting, not through the (public) one-to-many approach that characterized the news feed and social media era.

In my eyes, Durov is right when he criticizes the obsession with (other people’s) news within social media and when he suggests to get rid of baggage. But that’s not the end of social networking. It is an evolution. After years of excess on social media, more users know better what aspects of it they value – such as being able to loosely keep in touch with people – and which aspects are mostly destructive but persistent habits.

The drivers that change the game

Admittedly, in a world in which Facebook is close to hitting the astonishing number of 2 billion active users, the label “post-social media” sounds strange. But observed over a longer period, usage patterns are in fact changing more than what gets apparent at first glance. Driving forces are both external ones, such as cultural, social or demographic trends (including the debates about fake news, trolling, disinformation and online harassment), as well as internal ones, such as conceptional modifications of the products made by the platforms in order to adjust to changing user preferences, to the competition or in order to better achieve business goals.

The currently spreading “Stories” concept for example will inevitably change the mechanisms of social media and the dynamics it has on the public discourse and the media landscape (provided that the stories approach won’t just be a fad). The smartphone camera increasingly becomes the central input channel for the content that people share on their preferred apps (at least that’s the narrative that Snapchat and Facebook are selling). This content competes for attention with the click-driven day-to-day news junk that has been thriving so much on Facebook and Twitter over the past years. Quality content which aims at informing instead of only entertaining through the triggering of emotions will increasingly be found again directly at where it is being published, or through specialized curated web services that promise people to use their attention responsibly. The fact that publishers such as The New York Times or The Guardian are pulling out of Facebook’s Instant Articles is a clear statement.

Post-social media

Might all this be more wishful thinking than reality? I cannot rule it out completely. Predicting which trends and patterns are going to last and which will fade away quickly is as tough as assessing which anecdotal reports and empirical observations do have significance, and which ones don’t. But there is one thing that can be concluded with certainty: At least in the Western world, social media as we have gotten to know it has peaked, because the enthusiasm has vanished completely. After years of relentless feedback loops and permanent orgasmic outrage, novelty has worn off and many people are tired of the nowadays too well-known dynamics that seem to serve no one other than those who are addicted to emotional roller coasters, and those who make money with it.

That being said, proclaiming a “post-social media era” does not mean the end of all the user activities that are typically associated with social media. Even after everyone had stopped talking about the Web 2.0, its legacy and core principles were still ubiquitous – but in a more moderated, matured way. That’s what likely happens now again. People’s desire of connecting with others will remain. Social networking won’t go away, and content will of course stay an instrument through which connections are being made. But what kind of content that is, how it will be shared, and which means of distribution will be utilized – this is something for which new rules are being written. Hopefully better ones than those that applied most recently.

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