You probably didn’t realise that it’s social media’s 25th birthday this year.
Back in 1997, a website called Six Degrees attempted to show that we’re all connected by just six degrees of separation. It featured messaging between members and the ability to invite people to the platform.
It was probably a little ahead of its time though and closed in 2000.
Five years later, Friendster arrived and picked up where Six Degrees left off. It was originally a dating site where friends would set you up with their other friends to date.
It was a terrible dating service but gained momentum as a way for friends to chat with each other and post thoughts about their lives. This was a true social network, but it grew too fast and suffered terrible outages that saw its users flocking to MySpace and just a year later, to Facebook.
At the same time as Facebook was finding its feet, LinkedIn, Photobucket, Flickr and WordPress fired up their servers for the first time.
A forking phenomenon
Each new service borrowed from the ones before it. Chat. Posting. Photo sharing. It was like each was a forked development from the one before it.
Forking is a term used in software development where a main “trunk” of code or features is split into two directions. One trunk branch continues that main intended line of code or features. The other goes in a completely new direction, eventually becoming something very different.
This “forking” is what is happening with the main line of social media right now.
But it’s been going on for quite a few years already.
And the thing that drove the fork from social networking to social media was the mobile phone.
When social networks became social media
Back in 2010, Facebook was still a desktop website. It didn’t work well on mobile and wasn’t ready for the history-changing impact of the iPhone.
Facebook was quite slow to get on board with the mobile phone.
But as soon as it did, Facebook exploded in popularity.
That’s because the most efficient method of capturing media and distributing it was now sitting in the palms of our hands.
You could take a photo and post it directly to your network without first sending it to your computer. But the big shift to social media happened when Facebook allowed you to capture video on your phone and post it straight to your profile.
Now anyone could be their very own media creator.
Our social networks were less about what our grandma thought about Obama and more about the crazy things our friends got up to on the weekend.
Meanwhile, a new breed of what was called an “influencer” has begun to appear on a new app called Instagram. And they were getting millions following their photos — often of themselves — on this new photo capture and editing platform.
This was when social networking became more than just social networking. The big networks like Facebook were now as much a media channel as they were a platform for connecting with your friends.
But there was much more to come.
My Mum is on Facebook now
Facebook stopped being “cool” around 2017.
By this time the ads platform was mature, the average age of users had grown into the 30s, and kids were growing up with SnapChat and Instagram.
While Snap was mostly used for a private chats amongst friends, Instagram became the home of super-influencers like Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and others. These hyper-filtered and touched-up models didn’t want to chat with you. They completely ignored fans. They were now broadcasting to large audiences in much the same way as television and radio did. They posted. Fans responded. End of story.
This was the turning point.
Certain platforms had evolved to deliver media. Not connection. While Facebook was for friends and family, Instagram was for looking at people.
And then it all changed again.
The TikTok effect
Social media completed its fork away from social networking in 2020 with the appearance of a new video-sharing platform, TikTok.
The influence of TikTok has shaped how YouTube, Facebook and Instagram are now operating.
Instagram has copied TikTok’s features and is currently reinventing itself into a video consumption app. YouTube has a short format video feature called Shorts. Facebook has added Reels to its feature set.
Yet, with all this imitating, TikTok stands apart in this new world of video consumption, eclipsing even YouTube in terms of time spent watching in mid-2022.
And while Meta still wrestles with its attempts to turn Instagram into a TikTok clone and Facebook into yet another high-consumption video platform, many are declaring the era of social media to be over.
Different Apps for Different Things
While it’s true that video consumption on Facebook has dropped well behind TikTok, it doesn’t mean that social networking is over.
Just look at the strength of LinkedIn or even Facebook’s Groups right now to see how we’ve niched our way into using different platforms for different purposes.
We’re developing our professional brand on LinkedIn. We’re showing our life’s highlight reel on Instagram. We’re in conversation with family, friends and the people who like the same stuff as us on Facebook. We’re learning about how to do things and indulging our hobbies on YouTube. And we’re entertaining ourselves on TikTok.
There’s no death of social media. If anything, we’re just entering a golden age of social media as we become less attached to the “everything app” of Facebook and start doing different things in different places.
That also means that some social media is starting to become a different beast altogether.
The rise of creator media
TikTok, YouTube and Instagram are fast becoming a new kind of network. Not a social network, but a creator media.
In much the same way as we watched television networks in the 80s and 90s that were full of the creations of writers, producers, and directors, we’re now consuming massive amounts of media by non-professional content creators.
Which is not a comment on the quality of this new media at all. A lot of this content is of exceptionally high quality.
We can watch this content in short and long formats. We can watch it live or afterwards at our leisure. We don’t have just three or four channels that deliver what they think we like. Our own choices and viewing habits now deliver exactly the stuff that we like through hundreds of thousands of small channels.
Most of all, we are forming fandoms and hardcore followings around niche and specialised creators who have nothing to do with the movie industry or television networks.
Social media has split in two.
The original gangsters, social networks, now better known as Social Media. And the new kid on the block, creator networks — or perhaps, Creator Media.
What the future holds for them both
With the split into specific networks for specific types of interactivities or consumption, it’s tempting to think this will be the new stable paradigm.
Yet we know nothing stays the same for long in this digital realm.
TikTok usage patterns are already starting to show us that search is changing. TikTok users are using Google less to find things they want and using TikTok’s internal search engine to find products to buy and services to engage.
We also know that TikTok is about to take on Spotify when it comes to music. They are building their very own music streaming service that will either be a separate app (like YouTube’s YT Music app) or another section within TikTok just for music.
TikTok is also going all-in on creator-made media, paying creators to keep making content and leaving the social networking layer as a thin veneer that only acts as a recommendation and sharing function for the content being served.
And while it feels like Meta is battening down the hatches to ward off declining consumption on its feeds, it’ll only be Instagram that will be able to play the creator content game at scale. Facebook’s ace in the hand is how it’s managed to embed itself in the everyday lives of its core users.
Groups continue to be the superstar performer on Facebook. And while more niche platforms like Discord provide a similar kind of service as a Facebook Group, they are still only known in the highly tech-savvy crowds and niche fandoms. That hasn’t stopped Meta from copying the look and feel of Discord servers into their Facebook Groups experience.
The Bottom Line
Despite the howling of tech journalists and pundits (most of whom refuse to use the social platforms that they like to criticise so often) social media is far from dead. It’s fragmenting into even more platforms that do very specific things well.
Facebook still connects people who know each other better than any other network. Instagram still delivers aspirational content in multiple formats better than anyone else. LinkedIn is unmatched in organic reach to people who want to expand their learning, careers, or businesses. Even Twitter has found its long-term and highly loyal niche in those who want to know what’s happening right now before anyone else.
But there is a split between what we used to call social media — into social networks and creator media networks.
And while this disruption will change the social media landscape quite significantly, it just means that, more than ever before, you’ll discover that you are either a consumer or a creator. And this will determine your choice of networks.
It may even lead you to consume on some platforms and create on others.
Dante St James is the founder of Clickstarter, a Meta Certified Lead Trainer, a Community Trainer with Meta Australia, a digital advisor with Business Station, an accredited Digital Solutions advisor and presenter, and the editor at The Small Marketer. You can watch free 1-hour webinars and grow your digital skills at Dante’s YouTube Channel.
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