In 2011, social media changed the world for the better: this year, Arab Spring demonstrators used Facebook and Twitter to organize and raise awareness. In virtual space, unlike in real life, students encountered workers, men and women, and secular activists and young Islamists. Despite their differences, they became active together, making social networks a symbol of community, freedom of expression and democracy.
Looking at the year 2019, this picture has changed drastically. Likes and follower numbers are more important than ever, the quality of the posts seems to be in the background. While Facebook is still recovering from the Cambridge-Analytica crisis, Twitter has been forced to tackle cyberbullying and proactively tackle abuse and hate comments.
So how can you regain what makes social media so special? After all, social networks offer the opportunity to engage in digital dialogue worldwide – as platforms for ideas, discussions and your own voice.
The currency of social networks
At the TED2019 conference in Vancouver, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said very thoughtfully, “If I had to start Twitter again, the number of followers would play a subordinate role, as would the ‘Like’ in itself, I would not even know if that option still exists. “
Dorsey draws attention to a current phenomenon:
Social media platforms have been designed to disseminate content and gain followers from the beginning. Especially the number of followers is an important measuring instrument in almost all networks. The situation is similar with likes, thumbs up or little hearts. The small icons below the contributions not only require a response from the user, in reverse, the user is even addicted to it and post accordingly and much. The more likes and followers we generate, the more popular and valued we feel. The brain has already stored this as a reward mechanism.
From an entrepreneurial point of view, this model is promising. In the hunt for the next dopamine kick, users spend a lot of time on social networks, which makes the platforms all the more attractive to advertisers. They can efficiently reach their target group and thus increase their turnover. Not for nothing the blogger and influencer industry has developed so fast.
The problem: what generates many likes and followers is what is surprised, provoked, sensational and exciting. Of course these metrics help the social networks to decide which content is particularly well received and thus could interest other users. The consequence: The respective algorithm flushes exactly this and similar content into the timelines and feeds of the accounts. There is no more balanced topic pool, social media loses credibility for many users.
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quality not quantity
Social networks are well aware of this problem. Instagram, for example, experimented with hiding the number of likes among followers in a test run in Canada. In this way, it is no longer clear how many or how few hearts a new post receives. The platform is also considering turning off the number of followers in order to curb popularity competition and focus on high-quality content.
Twitter CEO Dorsey is committed to a complete rethink: Away from meaningless scrolling through the news feed to specific information with real added value. What if users did not follow other users, for example, but instead specific groups, hashtags, trends and topics?
For example, users could open the app and instantly get the latest news and information on a specific topic without having to struggle through less relevant content. Although social media is currently still far from it, this repositioning holds enormous potential.
Social fabric within the network
Apart from the likes and followers numbers, social networks face another challenge: before they existed, most people were only able to receive messages through the media. Now everyone can send them and express their opinion freely. For example, what was very important and helpful during the Arab Spring is leading more and more to online hounding, cyberbullying and hate commentary. For most of them, only a small minority of users are responsible, but they often take targeted action to manipulate algorithms and thus determine the online discourse.
To prevent this, many platforms now rely on AI-based algorithms. For example, Instagram has integrated a feature that uses machine learning to identify and filter out offensive words. The platform soon extended this mechanism to images and videos. Even Twitter, 38 percent of offensive tweets are already found by an algorithm and then sent to a corresponding team for review. Ascending trend.
Another interesting development can be seen on Facebook: last year, the platform saw a 40% increase in Facebook groups. Alone 1.4 billion users – that corresponds to approximately half of all Facebook members – is active in the various communities of interest. These groups bring people together, promote exchanges and strengthen the sense of community. Moderators usually pay attention to polite interaction, steer discussions and filter content. The result: a valuable user experience.
Apart from the groups, the rise in messaging services also suggests more intimate and humane communication in social networks. The five main services WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, QQ and Skype now count around 5 billion active users per month. Within these services arise many small social fabric. The members usually know each other – if not in real life, then at least digitally – and derive real added value from the respectful interaction with each other.
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Back to the origin
The responsibility of whether and how social media changes in the future lies not only with the platforms themselves, but also with the users themselves. It’s time to recalibrate your own expectations on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Co. What do we get in exchange for our time and attention? Currently, the return seems far too low. It is not for nothing that many people report that they feel worse after consuming social media.
So it’s time to expect more: meaningful discussions, reliable information, respectful interaction and, of course, entertainment. After all, that’s the origin of social media.
Ryan Holmes is the CEO of Hootsuite, the world’s leading social media management platform Hootsuite today