One of my favorite films is David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” which follows the launch of Facebook and subsequent court cases.
The movie doesn’t name the company itself, which reflects that while other major players have existed before and after, Facebook (now Meta…) has dominated the social media landscape for over a decade.
Yet suddenly, that’s shifting. Meta’s stock is down over 60% this year. What changed?
While a part of it may be that Meta’s leadership is increasingly focused on “The Metaverse” over the company’s primary products, there has also been a large shift in how different demographics perceive social media.
We’re no longer broadcasting our whole lives, only the best parts. People have a better understanding of how using social media has negative effects on their mental health and body image from news stories and documentaries like “The Social Dilemma.”
I argue that there is demand for movement away from content that induces such FOMO and self-loathing, and towards dopamine-inducing positive reinforcement.
Social media as it is has failed to accomplish what it set out to do without a cascade of negative side effects. The next wave of social media is betting on being “friendly”.
Social media has multiple roles
Social media currently has three main functions.
Originally, its main purpose was connection. Sharing what you were doing with your friends, and seeing what they were up to.
With the launch of News Feed and alternative networks such as Twitter, they also became one of the main ways we hear news. How we learn about current events, told through the tinted perspective of people we admire and agree with.
Finally, social media is entertainment. How we spend our attention in all our spare moments.
These are the main things social apps set out to accomplish; to build community, to inform, and to entertain. Unfortunately, few social platforms today live up to that vision without major shortfalls.
And this causes conflict
The matchmaker and the commentator. The pundit and the cinema. I just established that social media is trying to be too many things. One of the core problems is how when these three purposes overlap, conflict emerges.
When news must also be entertainment, extremist (usually negative) content becomes more common because it’s more engaging - leading to the challenge of everyone living in their own “filter bubbles.”
These apps that are intended to bring us together instead leave us feeling ever-more alone.
Our lives feel superficial, and though we know everyone else’s digital existence is similarly imperfect, that doesn’t stop the negative feelings that can only be remedied by another dopamine rush. The instant gratification of posting another story, returning another snap, and seeing the “likes” roll in.
So social media is splitting up
While big players such as Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram have become amalgamations of friends and news feeds and amusement and distraction, in general, the social media space is fragmenting.
It’s splitting into “social” apps where you engage with friends, such as Snapchat and BeReal, and “media” apps where you find entertainment, such as TikTok, YouTube, and new players like Fizz. This separation has led to more focused products that are especially good at what they do; for TikTok, short-form content is the purpose, not a feature.
However, I find that the most interesting trend is toward developing social media that doesn’t value usage and retention over the health of their users, and aims to appear more user-friendly.
And trying to become more “friendly”?
With billions of users, Meta’s networks aren’t going away anytime soon - but they are growing stagnant. There are now many apps trying to subvert this societal expectation that social apps breed negativity and addiction.
Hinge is the “dating app designed to be deleted.”
BeReal proclaims that it’s trying to show our authentic lives, and spend as little as time on it as possible.
Gas is a new app targeting secondary school students that only allows users to compliment each other.
And a new startup, literally named “Friendly Apps,” which has yet to release an actual product, says their mission is to build social media apps that enable online connection yet put mental health first.
We’ll see if that works…
The trouble is, there may be something inherently problematic about connecting humans with each other. Bringing people together is good until you’re connecting children with pedophiles, or white supremacists with neo-Nazis.
I would also be remiss to discuss social media and the moral and humanistic concerns it raises without addressing the important economic forces at play. Social media plays a very important role in marketing and creating value for businesses, large and small.
Additionally, it is an extremely profitable business sector itself; Facebook made $46 billion in profit in one quarter of 2021 off user data and targeted advertising. As Zuckerberg said — “Senator, we sell ads.”
Social media platforms promote unhealthy behavior because their business models incentivize getting you to spend as much time as possible scrolling. While the idea of “friendlier” social media is a nice one, anyone developing such a social network will need to also reinvent the monetization strategy that all social sites of today are built on.
End of the feed
Social media retains positive qualities. I am able to stay better connected to my friends from high school than my parents — who literally had to physically mail letters (imagine that!) — could have dreamed.
Still, I’m trying to spend less time looking at what other people are doing with their lives and watching algorithmically surfaced content, and more time learning in my spare moments. I’ve even recently been practicing Mandarin on Duolingo while using the restroom.
There are downsides to supporting social media, even if it is with the intent to generate positivity. Kids will remain dependent on tech platforms for validation and belonging, only it’ll be over compliments from polls rather than superficial comments on posts.
Ultimately, through creating new social platforms built with the knowledge we’ve gained about the dangers of a business model built on invasive advertising, there is possibility for a space now synonymous with addiction and extremism to return to its original stated purpose - helping people feel more connected.
Thanks for reading :)