Tyler Cowen column: Have we reached the peak of social media? | Columnists

By Tyler Cowen

Have we reached the peak of social networks?

Many of America’s top social media companies, such as Snap, Twitter and Pinterest, are now worth less than they were the day they went public.

Shares of Meta (formerly Facebook) are now trading at less than half of their all-time high. The company announced that it was changing its News Feed to emphasize content from its “discovery engine” rather than from friends and family. Instagram, a subsidiary of Meta, announced a similar, much criticized change.

The drop in market value may prove to be temporary and there is a good chance that the sector will come back thanks to new companies and new products. Yet the idea that social media is past its prime is no longer unthinkable. What would a future look like with less social media?

For me, one of the most fundamental questions about human nature right now is how much people enjoy exposing their lives to a wider audience, whether through words, photos, or videos. It reminds me of the decline of blogging from its heyday (around 2001 to 2012) to today. There are still many good blogs out there, but they don’t have the great cultural relevance that Andrew Sullivan, Daily Kos, or Instapundit had in their heyday.

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Why did these blogs disappear? I can think of at least three reasons.

First, many people who produce content preferred to write for smaller or more private audiences, and did so once Facebook became more popular. Second, YouTube has become more popular and many people who consume content prefer videos to blogs. Finally, the rise of Twitter has shown that short snippets are often more fun to read than turgid blog posts.

Let’s leave this last reason aside, because the future of Twitter for the moment is obviously not bright, the company being caught in a pincer movement between a buyer who no longer seems to want it and a current management team who does not manage it very well. good. I expect Twitter to continue (and I’m benefiting a lot from it myself), but it’s not the future of social media.

If I look at my own social media usage, it’s WhatsApp (also owned by Meta) that’s growing steadily: in line with the trend towards private, small group messaging.

So, is writing for a private, select audience about to eclipse writing for a wider audience on social media? What would more private messaging, more texting, and more locked social media accounts mean for public discourse?

Public intellectuals still write on open social media, but the sector as a whole is reportedly shifting to more personal and intimate forms of communication. Again, this is not a prediction. But is this such an implausible vision of the future?

One of the most robust forms of social media is online dating, although these companies don’t have the most significant valuations. The percentage of couples who have met online continues to rise, and that trend is unlikely to reverse anytime soon. But online dating may not be as “social” as other forms of social media: people view certain profiles and then switch to private communications fairly quickly.

Private communications seem to solve many of the problems cited by critics of social media. Social media would not corrupt public discourse as much because there would be less public discourse to corrupt. And to criticize the new manifestations of these (formerly?) social media platforms would be to criticize the communication itself.

The video could also continue its rise. Even though many American social media companies are losing value, TikTok and its short videos have been the big winners in recent years. Whether or not the company maintains its current lead in the market, it’s easy to imagine that, increasingly, video will replace text. Even on planes with buggy seatback screens, I’ve noticed people seem to prefer watching something to reading a book.

In this hypothetical future, social media might look a lot more like old-fashioned gossip. Instead of whispering in someone’s ear or picking up the phone, people would just click on their favorite messaging service.

They might give the “scoop” in private, then refer to it obliquely in public. Or, more directly, people would simply use social media to talk about each other instead of debating the issues of the day. Much of the video is a mixture of talk and a kind of “show and tell”. On TikTok, for example, props and pantomime are popular on many channels.

I have mixed feelings about this potential increase in gossip at the expense of the social side of social media. Over the past decade, hundreds of articles have been published about how social media will kill democracy and ruin teenage lives. This now seems unlikely: valid or not, such concerns could prove obsolete.

The new villain might just be gossip – magnified by the power of instant communications. In many ways, the problems of the post-social media world could mirror those of the pre-social media world. So much for progress.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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