original_title] | #bumble | #tinder | #pof


But numbers are not the only measure that matters. Facebook has been criticised for its lacklustre monitoring of political advertising and the ways its algorithms seem almost by design to ramp up corrosive “echo chamber” effects, where people’s viewpoints are constantly reinforced.

Throw in more recent backlash from documentaries like The Social Dilemma, increased regulatory scrutiny from various governments, declining relevance as a culture shaper, and a dose of human curiosity as to what’s next, and it feels as if we’re on the precipice of social’s next big wave.

Goldstein, who advises companies such as The New York Times, Disney, and Forbes on how to adapt in a constantly changing ecosystem, thinks Facebook’s size will get in the way of its future.

Parler has been removed from app stores. Getty

“It’s too big for anybody to run, too powerful,” he says. “And they’re too far removed from what’s actually happening day-to-day on the platform.”

It’s the historical empire conundrum manifest for the online era: growing an empire is one thing, maintaining it is another.

Over the next couple of years, three key trends – unbundling, the creator economy and social commerce – will change the social media status quo. We’re entering a transition phase, and while the dust is yet to settle (does it ever?), it’s fun to think about the future.

Unbundling

Facebook, with its various Pages, Groups, and Messenger threads, is ripe for unbundling, the separation of all those functions and interest groups. While the company continues to target anyone and everyone with a non-stop “growth is good” mentality, the experience of logging on and scrolling through so much randomness is becoming annoying for many.

Tech analyst Eugene Wei, who was head of product at Flipboard and head of video at virtual reality business Oculus, writes that “context and timing” are underrated aspects that explain why some ideas take off and others don’t. We focus on founder brilliance or the genius of a particular concept, but less on the actual world into which those ideas are thrust.

Facebook is busy fighting other battles, meaning that the context and timing is really quite good for challengers catering to niche needs to step in. Many will fail, but each day, more and more are trying.

Take the recent rise and fall of Parler, pitched to users as a free-speech friendly, right-leaning, Twitter-like social media network. Apple has blocked Parler on its App Store, saying that its community guidelines don’t meet Apple’s standards, and that simple searches on the platform “reveal highly objectionable content” including derogatory terms and Nazi symbols. Those findings are disturbing, but Parler’s success in acquiring millions of user sign-ups evinces a thirst for a place that caters to extremist views that should not be ignored.

Eddie Geller, chief executive of Tinybeans. 

On the more wholesome end of the spectrum is Tinybeans, a Sydney-founded social media platform for parents that lets them more privately and safely share pictures of their kids. No #BabySpam shaming here. The company’s chief executive, Eddie Geller, who is based in New York, says his strategy for 2021 is to connect more of its members with one another outside of their immediate families, and to up the ante on the volume of parent-specific content and advice on the platform.

Then there is Arli, a new social platform founded by an Australian called Sally Krebs who launched the service to connect people looking for support with addiction issues. While there are Facebook Groups and Reddit threads that cater to this difficult health question, Krebs, who herself has been a carer to family members with addictions, says these spaces are not ideal.

“In the context of addiction, people are going to these groups because they need ‘in-the-moment’ support,” Krebs says. “The groups on Facebook have tens of thousands of members and therefore need lots of moderation, which means sometimes it can take up to 24 hours for someone’s post to be approved and for them to get a reply.

“A craving and a trigger lasts 20 seconds. People need a response faster, and because of the size and security of our circles, we can deliver on that promise.”

Unlike Facebook, Arli has a subscription business model, not an ad-supported one, groups are limited to 25 people, and there is a private one-to-one chat function with a wellbeing coach.

Meanwhile, Strava executives have often pushed back on the idea that their exercise tracking and sharing app is “Facebook for fitness”, but with leaderboards, message functions, and shareable calendars, in many ways, it’s an online social hub for people to share their workout journeys only among those who actually care.

Why stop here? Banking, finance and trading apps could all add a social element connecting customers of similar income brackets. Apple Music and Spotify could connect music fan bases.

The options are endless, and the basic significance of unbundling in the context of Facebook specifically is that more time spent by people on other apps means less time on Facebook. Given Facebook monetises time on scroll, the cumulative impact of everyone who says “I never check Facebook anymore” is a slow to crystallise but genuine existential threat.

Another long shot is that news media publishers could invest more in social media-fying their digital businesses. Think a New York Times cooking community integrated onto its own app, or a Nine-owned and created online destination specifically for The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend quiz lovers.

The hardest part about launching a new app is not having a bright idea, it’s the cost of acquiring new customers and inspiring people to adopt new habits. News organisations, with their existing readers, just don’t have this same community-building problem.

Creators’ economy

An existential threat to social media platforms is the need to ensure a constant supply of content and so the needs of content creators will begin to matter more.

So far, content creators have not been given a bigger seat at the table compared to advertisers when it comes to how platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have been built. This is despite the fact that the good ones produce the content backbone of these companies.

TikTok Australia managing director Lee Hunter. James Brickwood

In fairness, the creator and influencer economy in general is a consequence of social media. And while everyone, from podcast hosts to Twitch streamers, thinks they have what it takes to be the next content star, that’s clearly not the case. But the best online talent will be more important stakeholders in shaping social’s next phase.

Signs of this shift in tone are arriving. The founders and investors in audio only social media app Clubhouse have called out their desire to build a “creator-friendly” space, and last month started testing an invite-only “Creator Pilot Program” that includes a closed WhatsApp group chat with leadership at the company.

TikTok is also paying closer attention to nurturing its top creators. After earlier issues with local creators struggling to get a hold of TikTok employees, TikTok Australia managing director Lee Hunter says the company has built up a local team that specifically works on outreach.

“The team works across a range of creators, from big media publishers, through to people having their first thrill of success on the platform. We help them with everything from onboarding, education and ongoing support,” Hunter says.

“We also have a team focused on nurturing important communities on the platform, such as Indigenous and LGBTQIA+ groups. It’s vitally important that we build and support a local ecosystem of creators and creativity in Australia, and have a team that content creators can rely upon.”

OnlyFans has also been on a bit of a tear of late. The app is mostly known for online sex work, and it allows creators to set monthly subscription fees, with optional extras like charging for direct messages. Putting aside the moral debates that anything related to selling sex and erotica often inspire, OnlyFans provides a proof-of-concept for a changing dynamic between platform, creator, and fan.

Cue Sunroom, a new social media platform launching in April. It was started by two Australians and one American, and aims to strike a note somewhere between Instagram and OnlyFans.

Sunroom co-founder Michelle Battersby. Louie Douvis

Sunroom co-founder Michelle Battersby, who was previously the head of marketing at Keep It Cleaner and before that head of marketing Asia-Pacific for dating app Bumble, says there is pent-up demand from creators for a platform that provides both a safer environment free from trolling, harassment and censorship and different ways of monetising their output that is not sponsored posts or brand deals.

“We are already seeing the start of a new wave when it comes to social media,” Battersby says. “The internet tends to move in 10-year waves. First we had the groundwork and the boom of the dotcoms. Then we had search engines like Google. Then social media came along and companies like Apple and Facebook changed the world we live in. Now we are seeing the rise of the creator economy, changing attitudes surrounding the way we consume content and a drive to micro, closed, cult like spaces.”

Her team’s thesis is that during this next wave, like subscribing to your favourite magazine or buying specific albums, people will pay to follow specific influencers and to see their “back catalogue”.

Creators themselves, particularly those who play in a space ill-suited to Instagram’s content guidelines, will be willing to give a platform built with their pain points in mind from the very beginning a go.

Shopification of social media

Most social media platforms rely on advertising for revenue and Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok in particular are going to look and feel like virtual shopping malls. This will only get more intense.

Snapchat’s Kathryn Carter. Louise Kennerley

Snap Inc’s general manager for Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia and Hong Kong, Kathryn Carter, says the company is making significant investments into beefing up the e-commerce capability of the app, taking it from its message sharing and mobile content viewing origins to a bona fide shopping destination.

When it comes to “social commerce”, Snapchat has already launched a number of augmented reality features with brands, like letting users virtually try on shoes or make-up.

“It’s important to caveat that this is being done at scale, as well. When we’re talking about augmented reality, the numbers that we’re referring to are meaningful. It isn’t a novelty, it’s absolutely becoming a necessity when it comes to the best way to engage with the Gen Z and Millennial audience,” Carter says.

“The connection and application from a social commerce perspective in a world post COVID is something that I think is incredibly powerful and exciting; in terms of crystal ball gazing into the future of social, I’d say that that there is huge potential in that [augmented reality] space.”

Meanwhile, Hunter says TikTok has launched a global partnership with Shopify in Australia, which lets Shopify merchants who advertise on TikTok sell products more seamlessly in between the flow of memes and renegades.

“Social commerce is a vital channel for businesses to reach new audiences, and we’re constantly looking for new ways to bring value to businesses and creators,” Hunter says.

“Ultimately, we’re focused on ways to inspire creativity, bring joy, and add value for our community.”

The new player we can’t even imagine

Less a trend and more a wild prediction is that a non-Facebook player will emerge from the shadows and crack the vexed question of how to make social media a less angry, less political place. This player might not yet exist.

Or, Goldstein says, this could be Apple’s iMessage. The tech titan, while imperfect, has shown a willingness to hold the line against Facebook on issues like privacy and data collection. It’s messaging service is already a place where people share conversations, memes and news articles. Why not beef that up a bit, and make it a bit more social media-esque?

“So part of me can’t believe all the content that’s still on Facebook, and who is posting all the time. I really think Apple iMessage – and I think most of us would feel pretty good about that – could be the next big social media platform, at least in the United States.”

The only catch – and it’s a big one given 72 per cent of phone owners use an Android deviceis that iMessage can only be accessed by people using Apple hardware.

The internet has been social from the start. Internet Daddy and founder of the Java programming language James Gosling says even in the 1980s, working on the precursor to the internet known as the ARPANET, “a lot of social life became centred around the ARPANET”, with one line messages flowing back and forth between people all day every day.

Throwing forward, having multiple social media accounts means our online social lives are set to become even more complex, fracturing people’s digital identities.

The upside may be efficiency and a sense of understanding that comes from only hanging out with other music nerds on Spotify or being in a safe space on Arli to talk about addiction, but the downside is more silos and perhaps over-identification with certain aspects of the self at the cost of others.

All in all, social media is changing. That sense of Facebook as an immovable anchor of the internet is receding.

People aren’t logging off forever, but many are realising that as they’ve grown up, their first social love hasn’t evolved fast enough with them.

Moving on isn’t easy, but there’s nothing like a new, better relationship to pull someone’s attention into a different future.



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