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In between posing for shirtless photos and trolling Elon Musk online, Mark Zuckerberg has spent this summer sharing his thoughts on the future of social media. Seeing that he just launched the fastest growing app on record, people are listening.
Threads, Meta’s new social network, had 100mn sign ups in its first five days. Not bad for a watered-down version of Twitter. According to Zuckerberg, the idea is to create a public conversations app for a billion people.
Listening to a billion people talk to one another sounds like a nightmare. But that’s not quite what Zuckerberg means. Threads is less public town square than stage. He doesn’t want us all to be part of the conversation, he wants us in the audience.
Social media networks are not very sociable these days. Feeds are algorithmic, which means you see whatever the apps want to show you. After I joined Threads, I saw a lot of brands and celebrities. I couldn’t tell you what my friends were posting but I could tell you that reality star Bethenny Frankel had thoughts on the new Barbie movie.
Once upon a time, people joined social media networks so they could connect with one another. I signed up to Facebook in 2007 to see what my friends were up to online. It’s hard to remember why it was so interesting to look at lots of blurry photos of a night out, but I spent a lot of time doing it.
That has now been superseded by content from strangers. I still have all my social media accounts but I rarely post anything. For many of us, the point of TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter is not to upload our own posts or look at what our friends are doing but to watch a small number of popular creators. Instead of talking to one another, we have become mostly silent onlookers.
This is the result of the TikTok-ification of social media. On TikTok, videos are not designed to connect existing contacts. They are content consumed by the biggest crowd possible. One strange result of this is that the algorithm can produce a weird form of anonymity. You will sometimes hear TikTok creators preface particularly personal videos with: “if you know me — no you don’t”. The intended audience is strangers.
What this all means is that social media companies are no longer reliant on the network effect of real-world relationships that made Facebook so compelling in the first place. Who cares if your friends haven’t joined a particular social network? They are not the ones whose content you’re interested in anyway.
In theory, this should open the sector up to more competition. There has certainly been a flurry of new apps in the past couple of years, including companies such as Hive and Post. But there’s a catch: to draw an audience you need big-hitting names.
This is why Threads looks the way it does, with brands and well-known accounts promoted heavily. It is the reason Musk split Twitter’s timeline in two and added an algorithm-based “For You” feed when he bought the company. It is why Snapchat has added creator content to more parts of the app, including the map, and why a feed of chronological posts is no longer the default on Facebook.
This shift has changed the dynamic between social media users and companies. Content that was once free is growing expensive. If you want MrBeast to leave his 167mn YouTube subscribers for your social media platform you’ll need to make it worth his while. Hence the expansion of revenue-sharing schemes and creator funds.
As creators grow more powerful, their influence is expanding into more areas, including news. In the past, newsrooms have tried to help journalists become social media stars with mixed success. Turning creators into journalists means more views.
Social media has had a fractious relationship with news, blaming it for negativity and unwanted controversy. Meta created the Facebook Journalism Project in 2017 but has repeatedly said it may opt to remove news. Executive Adam Mosseri, who heads up Threads, says the new app will not do anything to encourage politics and “hard news”.
Other platforms want to incorporate news on their own, more creator-friendly terms. I recently visited the London office of The News Movement, a news start-up co-founded by former Dow Jones chief executive Will Lewis. It has a partnership with Snapchat that offers young creators rudimentary journalism training, helping them to identify bias and misinformation, for example. The creators are then encouraged to add Snapchat to the roster of platforms they use.
Micaiah Miles, a young American with over 58,000 TikTok followers, got 1mn Snapchat views for his video explaining the disappearance of the Titan submersible. Career journalists may wince. But high engagement means advertisers will be happy.
Last year, slowing ad growth led to declarations that that was the end of the social media era. In fact, we are only witnessing the death of social networking. This is the age of creators. Social media’s role in digital media entertainment is just getting started.