The Brexit referendum has left us with a complex relationship with social media. Widespread disinformation, bias timelines and fraudulent profiles have provoked a general re-think about its merits. At the time of its inception, social media seemed like a revolutionary tool for communication; but fast-forward to 2020, Facebook and Twitter exercise a monopoly on the distribution of knowledge and information. This has drastically spoilt the currents of progress, as their position of influence poses a tangible threat to the stability of democracy and individual welfare. 

But social media has also undoubtedly been established as a crucial and mandatory element of the System. Companies use social media extensively for marketing, and the rise of ‘influencers’ confirms that social media can be utilized as a career path. The explosion of Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok have revolutionized communication for the next generation, and this trend will continue to influence how we interact with one another over the coming decades.

Privacy concerns driving change

Privacy concerns are driving a seismic shift in our relationship with social media as people are questioning with greater urgency of how their data is being used. This growing discontent has become far more fragrant over the past year as third parties have ransacked personal data with little to no restraint. 

We live in a Wild West of data harvesting because Congressmen and UK Parliamentarians have for the most part been unable to grasp the complexity of what social media companies do. There’s practically no legislative restraint on Facebook escapades because it’s almost impossible for the law to keep up with such a new, fast-paced enterprise.

But this is changing rapidly. Miscarriages of data and unhinged political advertising has prompted a public inquiry into social media and its role in society-at-large. Facebook and Twitter are being subjected to unprecedented scrutiny from their own employees, their users, and respective governments. This is a watershed moment in the history of social media, and one of the key developments that we’re going to see over the coming years and decades is a substantial increase in regulation over privacy. In the run-up to the US Presidential Election, Facebook has been forced into making strides in their privacy policy to ensure that users aren’t going to be conned by artificial accounts and bias political ads, and democratic governments across the globe will try and establish the same standards. 

Data is the currency that users spend to have access to social media platforms, and as it stands, third-party advertisers have few obstacles to obtaining it. But governments are starting to become alert to how dangerous this scenario is, and over the coming years, these third parties will find it increasingly challenging to access information. Users themselves will become far more conscious and educated in how their data is being used, and the legal threshold for consent will become far higher. Such government intervention will have a drastic impact on how users interact with social media, as-well-as having ramifications on the wider industry.

Changes in content

Content itself will change drastically. ‘Fake news’ is eroding the sustainability of social media platforms, and if Twitter and Facebook want to retain the trust of users, eradicating misleading and false information is fundamental in achieving this. An increasing number of young users are opening their eyes to the misleading nature of these platforms, with students being especially vocal about this problem. Fostering a democratic online environment is key to building trust amongst the online community, and getting rid of misleading posts will be key to achieving this. Over the coming decades, we can expect online communities to become far more standardized with regards to misleading information, making it an adequate forum for debate.

Additionally, social media has historically had trouble with hate speech, as ‘drawing the line’ between what’s hateful and what constitutes ‘freedom of expression’ is notoriously difficult. But some of the world’s biggest corporations such as Coca Cola and Unilever have suspended advertising on social media because of concerns over its inability to contain hate-speech, and Twitter and Facebook have started to find their feet on the issue. Twitter’s deleting of Trump’s tweets have established a strong precedent across all social media platforms for the coming decades. This move will instigate an industry-wide revision of hate-speech, and will gradually convert social media environments into a more amicable platform to engage with as more and more content is deemed hateful. It will be a tricky road to go down, but within the next few decades, the environment itself will become far less toxic as timelines become immune to hateful content. 

Finally, there’s been a drastic change in the form of content being circulated and posted amongst social media. Facebook statuses are a relic, and the explosive success of Instagram and TikTok are clear indicators that pictures, videos, and memes are the fodder of social media. Views of branded video content increased by 258% since 2016, and a video is 6X more likely to be retweeted than a photo. Visual content has taken the front seat as our primary method of communication, and this will only increase as the next generation paint their virtual lives with visual content almost exclusively.

Specialized platforms

Facebook has seen a plateau in sign-ups amongst the younger generation because it isn’t specialized. It tries to import different elements of Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Instagram onto one platform, which isn’t what the next generation of consumers want. The boom in popularity of TikTok and Instagram is telling of a generational disposition towards single-purpose platforms, and over the next few decades, more and more of the new generation will flock to platforms which do one thing outstandingly well and have more social media accounts as a result. The industry will become a lot more diversified over the coming decades, with a decline in the popularity of Facebook and a burst of unique and bespoke social media companies. 

Overall, social media is set to undergo some profound changes over the coming decades as the industry itself becomes subject to growing governmental influence. The fabric itself will become far more stretched out over a wide variety of specialized platforms, and the next generation of consumers is key in steering the industry as they engage with it in a completely different way to that of their predecessors. We can expect some profound changes to the industry, and hopefully for the better. 

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