We're long, long past the point where social media seems new or particularly novel. Even the term social media itself is beginning to feel dated; the communications it refers to have become so ingrained into our everyday existences that the phrase seems redundant, like "color TV" or "cordless phone." I don't know, grandpa, wasn't media always social?
What is new is an apparent shift is toward anonymity. If you want to reveal your innermost thoughts to the internet at large, you can use Whisper; Secret lets you confess things to your friends; Yik Yak is popular among students in high schools and colleges who want to spread gossip and sex tapes while bullying each other. Artist and filmmaker Miranda July may have been trying to combat the impersonal nature of these platforms when she came out with an app called Somebody, which lets you use strangers as human carrier pigeons to deliver messages to other people (it's not much use unless a bunch of other people around you are using it).
Social media has expanded so much in the past decade-plus that it's easy to forget that early social media platforms, like MySpace or Friendster, seemed like a passing novelty at the time. Looking back, though, it's clearer to see the early 2000s as social media's infancy. Sure, the conception and development of the idea can be traced to early-internet connectors like BBSes or AOL's emphasis on member profiles and chatting, but it wasn't until Facebook rolled out during the middle of the last decade that we had entered what could be said to be a new era of human communication. Between February 2005 and August 2006, the use of social networking sites by young people jumped from 9 percent to 49 percent; today, Facebook says it has more than 1.35 billion active users. To say social media has grown into being the backbone of the internet is an understatement; at this point, it feels like the backbone of society. But is anyone still impressed that they can keep up with Aunt Judy through the computer? What's the next step?
Amy Miller, a comedian and marketing director, sees the shift toward the impersonal and the anonymous continuing. "Seven to ten years ago, we were like, 'Oh my God, so I can just, like, be friends with my fourth-grade sweetheart?' Connecting to people from your past actually felt like meeting a celebrity," she said. "In the near future, we will use social in order to completely avoid or delete our past."
In other words, we used to be impressed with how many people we could share our lives with, and now we're more interested in limiting what we share with who.
Jen Goldberg, a digital strategist for ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, agrees. "We'll continue to see a trend towards micro-communities and one-to-one or one-to-a select few sharing over the one-to-an-anonymous many," she said. "We've cycled away from blogging and broadcasting, towards anonymous sharing and small group messaging."
People have also clearly shown that they like looking at pictures and short bursts of texts, not reading Twitter novels or your self-involved Facebook notes. While Facebook remains the world's largest social network, the fastest growth is happening on Tumblr, Snapchat, and Instagram. Tumblr's active user base grew by over 120 percent this year, Instagram is incredibly popular among teens, and Snapchat has gotten so big it rejected an offer to sell to Facebook for $3 billion.
Alec McNayr and Alan Beard, the co-founders of McBeard Media, a social creative agency, don't see any of your favorite social media networks shrinking anytime soon. "We're bullish on every single major social platform—this is still the beginning of the age of social content," they told me. "The most intense competition in the space is obviously for video consumption—everyone wants to be in YouTube's game. Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest—they all are optimizing for video consumption on mobile devices. Brand-supported short video content is an unstoppable force, so Google/YouTube clearly have targets on their backs."
Dan Dominguez, a writer and producer for YouTube-based Shut Up! Cartoons, envisions a bigger shift. "Facebook's gonna shrink because it's not cool anymore," he said. "Snapchat will grow and then shrink as some other venture capitalist's dream of how to make $800 million catches on, and then that too will be replaced. YouTube will probably be around forever because you can actually tell emotionally rich stories on there."
Goldberg of Wieden+Kennedy sees another trend: People are sharing and curating content far, far more than they create it, though with Snapchat letting you create images for your friends and share them instantaneously, the lines between those activities are getting blurred. "The next wave may be shopping apps that make consumption into a sort of creation and communication as you and your friends collaborate on outfits or Christmas presents," she said.
Along with creation, communication, and consumption comes another C-word: capitalism. Though social media began as a way for people to share things that they had made themselves or stumbled across, more and more viral content is sponsored in some way, often by a massive corporation. New media's model is beginning to look very similar to old media's model: If you want to play, you're going to have to pay.
This shift will mean more things that straddle the line between advertising and simple entertainment. "No one shares 'marketing,'" said McNayr and Beard, "but lots of people will share branded content experiences that entertain them."
Goldberg sees further blending between brands and celebrities: "In the way that celebrities have to behave like brands, brands are having to behave like celebrities," she said. "They will ever increasingly be cultural entities as well as business ones and will need to have the breadth of attention, interests, and output that any famous person would."
"When our eyes are a video camera, our ears a microphone, and we are wearing clothes with code in the fibers, we'll likely share our lives on a biorhythmic scale." –Jen Goldberg.
If all that talk of #branded #content bums you out, here's something to terrify you: Social media is going to become more and more invasive and more and more a part of our bodies. Last year, Facebook paid billions for Oculus VR, a company gearing up to mass-produce virtual-reality headsets . In May, Google Glass became widely available, if not affordable for most. This means that soon, you'll never have to not be looking at a computer.
"It'll be like Minority Report without jetpack policemen," said McNayr and Beard. "Everything pushes to targeted video content, localized/personalized/contextualized on truly ubiquitous content screens. Ads, awareness, content, relationships, communication, meetups IRL. Devices fall away—everything you touch is an interface for your communication and content workflows/apps."
"When our eyes are a video camera, our ears a microphone, and we are wearing clothes with code in the fibers, we'll likely share our lives on a biorhythmic scale," Goldberg said. "You can imagine waking up from a dream and sending a clip where your friend appeared straight to them, or capturing your dance moves during a club night and uploading it to a gallery of animated avatars."
Dominguez is less optimistic: "In ten or 15 years social media will probably just be a 3D hologram of a Coca-Cola bottle angrily shouting at us to buy Coca-Cola, then rewarding us with a meme .GIF if we buy Coca-Cola, or shocking us with a high-voltage electrical current if we don't."
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