Disenchanted and Bored

published on 04 August 2021

Searching for new horizons in social media

Photo by <a href=Magnet.me on Unsplash"/>
Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

Scrolling down continuously, liking a few posts that attract your fancy and skimming through headlines to check whether there is something genuinely interesting: This is a recap of how we spend our precious time every day on social media platforms.

By using complex algorithms, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other channels serve content they think will keep us scrolling. This way, they all managed to keep us coming back with their addictive feeds, yet they are no longer as appealing as they once were. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Centre, except for YouTube and Reddit, growth for most social media platforms has been stagnant since 2019.

Except for YouTube and Reddit, growth for most social media platforms has been stagnant since 2019.

It appears that while the most loyal users of incumbent social media platforms have become disenchanted and bored, new users are not really drawn to them either. While popular platforms are trying to reinvent themselves by incorporating ‘novel’ features such as Stories or Spaces, new platforms such as Clubhouse are thriving, further proving that users are looking for a breath of fresh air.

But are the new entrants really a breath of fresh air or are they the same addictive approaches reworked in a different medium?

Inspired by journalists and scholars, we are imagining a different future for social media. Here is our take on the key points that is creating the impetus for this momentum.

Unstructured, long conversations that go nowhere are exhausting.

One of the biggest deficiencies of social media platforms is that it is almost impossible to hold meaningful conversations. Even though platforms categorise broad topics under hashtags, once an interaction starts, it easily becomes a hot mess as more people get involved. More replies and comments inundate the conversation with opinions, and oftentimes even the conversation starter ends up getting confused.

This is by no means how a conversation naturally evolves in accordance with human cognition. We do not have a limitless attention span nor a capacity to deal with a flood of information.

As Cal Newport so rightly puts: “this type of ad-hoc, ongoing, unstructured conversation, once you get above about five people, it doesn’t work. As we shift towards knowledge work, where we’re trying to create value with our brains, maintaining that conversation requires topic context switching, which is like poison to cognitive performance.’’

Social media platforms, then, should and will look into more structured discussions mostly wrapped in messaging within the platform.

‘’… my very first column for The New York Times two years ago — and it’s something I’ve been railing about for years — is how badly these social media companies have hurt our civic discourse completely. They’ve weaponised it, they’ve amplified bad feelings, they’ve been built for enragement over engagement.’’

Kara Swisher

We no longer trust social media platforms & seek to encounter at least some sort of diversity of opinions.

In one of the presentations made for Facebook executives, a Facebook Inc. team had an alarming message: “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness. If left unchecked, Facebook would feed users more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.”

The algorithms of social media platforms keep us captive in our echo chambers and we keep getting exposed to a distorted sense of reality. Although this has been the case for over a decade, users are no longer naive. In recent years, especially after scandalous revelations such as the Cambridge Analytica case, trust in social media platforms are in serious decline. According to a recent NBC poll, 64% of Americans think social media does more to divide than unite the American people.

American legal scholar Cass Sunstein imagines that instead of being trapped in echo chambers, people would opt for being exposed to opposite views if they had the chance to choose. In addition, they might well realise that these opposite ideas, in fact, have some merit to them. It seems that it is necessary and urgent for social media platforms to increase the visibility of the other side of the coin.

‘’The worst-case scenarios are no longer just hypothetical. People are shown things that appeal most to them, they click, they read, they watch, they fall into rabbit holes that reinforce their thoughts and ideas, they connect with like-minded people. They end up in their own personalised version of reality. They end up inside the U.S. Capitol.’’

Joanna Stern

Old features became banal and do not cater to our communication needs.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has created a new topology of psychological and emotional needs. But even before that, the way social media is designed became unimpressive to many users. As the news feeds of Facebook or Twitter failed to grab the attention of users, disappearing Stories borrowed by Snapchat took over their popularity. Here, the text on the feed became out-fashioned and was replaced by audio-visual content. It was no wonder that TikTok and YouTube grew tremendously in the meantime.

As we have been stuck at home for a long time since the outbreak of Covid-19, our longing for genuine human connection skyrocketed. Concurring with this emotional need, live and recorded audio content have become popular. Damian Radcliffe from the University of Oregon highlights this attribute of Clubhouse and podcasts. He says that “Clubhouse is tapping into the creativity, intimacy and authenticity that audio can deliver, a trend that lies at the heart of the current golden age of podcasting.” We can expect to see even more growth in audio content as Twitter also introduced a new feature called Spaces that serves this purpose.

Users are in search of forming closer communities.

Having followers and friends with whom you’re connected but have nothing in common doesn’t always create the most open space for sharing. Especially young people now want to make online friends based on authentic connections and mutual interests.

Sara Wilson identifies three categories of “digital campfires” that people prefer to gather around on online platforms. She argues that private messaging is particularly appealing for young people as they feel more comfortable sharing. Furthermore, what she calls micro-community campfires such as Facebook groups or Close Friends feature within Instagram are places where people can interact with each other more exclusively, over shared interests. Lastly, shared experience campfires such as Twitch provide a ground for collective entertainment.

We expect that in the coming years, the sense of community and privacy will become even more crucial and services such as Instagram’s Close Friends and Reddit’s subreddits are definitely here to stay as they cater to these expectations.

We believe that these four themes — structured conversations, diversity of opinions, more intimate communication & closer communities — will have the utmost importance in characterising the future of social media platforms.

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