The Evolution of Social Media: Splitting Into Social and Media

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Hi Everyone,

Happy New Year! 🎉 I hope you had a wonderful holiday. This week, I’m couching my resolution for 2021—changing my relationship with social media—within a broader piece on how social media is evolving.

It’s more personal than usual, but bear with me—I think my own experiences reflect some interesting trends in consumer behavior and emerging platforms.

The Evolution of Social Media: Splitting Into Social and Media

My AOL Instant Messenger username was sexyrexy3617. I’m not proud of it. But in the 7th Grade, my friend Robbie assured me that it would be super cool and super funny. Desperate to be both cool and funny, I agreed.

A year later, Robbie misled me again by convincing me to dress up as a chick magnet for Halloween. This marked a sharp reversal from my costumes in elementary school, when I’d dressed as a girl not one, not two, but three years in a row. (Including one year as Sandy from Grease. Importantly, Sandy from the end of Grease—bad Sandy.)

That cringeworthy (and sexist) chick magnet photo became my first profile picture on Myspace. (The great irony being that I would turn out to be gay.)

I’m sharing these embarrassing stories because both the sexyrexy3617 AIM username and the chick magnet photo capture my early relationship with social media: a deep desire to fit in and be liked.

This was true for many Millennials. We came of age with social media: in elementary school, AIM; in middle school, Myspace; in high school, Facebook. At an age when we were clamoring for status and belonging in real life, we learned to also seek it online.

At school, we worried about whether we’d have a seat at the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria. Online, we worried about whether we were on a classmate’s Top Friends. (Who could forget Top Friends—literally ranking friends by how much you like them. Ouch.)

I’ve started calling our generation the social media in-betweeners. We’re not quite digital natives like today’s Gen Zs, who don’t remember a world pre-internet. But we also didn’t make it to adulthood unscathed by social media like older generations.

We’re a generation that grew up seeking affirmation externally—a generation that got trophies just for participating, that got coddled by parents and teachers. Social media matured alongside us, acting as a force multiplier for our insecurities and our hunger for validation.

Instagram—a more visual platform than AIM or Facebook—only exacerbated those tendencies. Instagram was literally a filtered version of reality, teaching an entire generation of teenagers to be contrived and artificial.

I was both a victim of and perpetrator of this pressure, feeling a deep need to come across as flawless and airbrushed and curated online.

(There’s an entire other essay that could be written about how social platforms—and Instagram, in particular—influence the psyche of the gay community, an unusually image-conscious demographic for which the semblance of perfection and beauty acts as a social currency.)

At some point, I realized that I was measuring my self-worth in likes and followers. I decided that those weren’t metrics by which I wanted to define my life. I took a year off of Instagram, lost 25,000 followers, and emerged with a healthier relationship.

But I still find myself occasionally pulled back into the performative, toxic elements of social platforms. My New Year’s Resolution for 2021 is to be more intentional about how I spent my time online.

My experience of social media reflects a broader arc of how consumer behaviors have evolved over the last 15 years. This week, I wanted to explore how social media is evolving.

Social Media 3.0

In the early days of social media, our online identities were separate from our real-world identities. On AIM, we were soccergirl7; Kim Kardashian’s Myspace name was Princess Kimberly.

In the mid-2000s, Facebook (along with the now-defunct Friendster) had the idea to use our actual identities online. Now, our real-world friends could find us online (great!) and our chick magnet profile pictures would forever be part of our digital identities (not so great!).

Tasha Kim recently wrote that we’re now in the Social Media 3.0 era:

I see Social Media 3.0 bifurcating this decade: people will gravitate toward small group or 1-to-1 messaging, while also gravitating toward broad, 1-to-many platforms.

The first is more social than media. It’s driven by a backlash to performative, status-seeking social media: people want to spend quality time online with close friends and family. This means less Facebook and Instagram and more WhatsApp and Messenger.

The second is more media than social. It’s driven by AI-powered and network-driven platforms that allow people to discover creativity, learning, and connection online. TikTok is an early iteration, untethered from a social graph and letting strangers connect across the globe.

More Social, Less Media: Small Group & 1-to-1

On December 23rd, Honk hit the App Store and rocketed up the charts. Honk lets users send ephemeral, real-time messages. Instead of firing off messages and waiting for a response, friends see messages appear as you type—there’s no send button and no saved chat history.

Honk reminds me of something we used to do in school: communicate through Google Docs. There was no history of messages, and messages were interactive, fast, and fun.

Gen Zs grew up viewing Facebook and Instagram as places where their teachers and parents were. Honk taps into Gen Z’s desire to form deeper, more private relationships online. This comes at the expense of time spent on Facebook and Instagram. The below chart shows how Facebook’s growth is being driven by Messenger; while the Facebook app is down -9% in usage, Facebook + Messenger together are up +2%.

There are other beneficiaries of the trend toward group-based and 1-to-1 connection. Younger users are turning to Discord and Slack for community-based interactions. Messaging apps like Signal, Telegram, and iMessage are providing the foundation for more direct and personal social interactions this decade. And friend-based voice chat rooms like Geneva, Rodeo, and Chalk are giving people a new way to communicate with close-knit groups.

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More Media, Less Social: Large Group & 1-to-Many

While people are communicating more with close friends and family on social media, they’re also communicating more with strangers.

Facebook and Instagram were born from the desire to connect with friends and public figures online. Each has a built-in social graph. TikTok threw that concept out the window. The TikTok For You Page—the backbone of the app—algorithmically serves you videos from random people around the world. You might never see the same person twice.

While TikTok visitors and time spent have each soared this year, Instagram visitors have declined and time spent has plateaued:

By uncoupling from a friend graph, TikTok becomes less about status and FOMO and more about creativity and connection. You aren’t interacting with friends, but with strangers chosen by AI.

Clubhouse is similar: people can discover and meet like-minded people, bonding over shared interests and experiences. Most people on Clubhouse are passive listeners, making the platform more like a real-time podcast than a conversation with a friend.

Livestreaming platforms like Twitch, Caffeine, and PopShop Live are other examples of Social Media 3.0: each is about 1-to-many, community-based interactions.

Are there elements of TikTok or Clubhouse or Twitch that are still about validation and social standing? Of course. But they also represent a return to a pre-Facebook and pre-Instagram era, more about connection than about status.

Final Thoughts

Social media has had a net positive impact on my life. Ironically, it was social media that helped me learn that a chick magnet costume is sexist and that it wasn’t okay that I got bullied for dressing up as a girl. Social media helped forge my worldview.

But social media was also a constant source of anxiety, insecurity, and identity-questioning during formative years of my life. This year, my goals track the evolution of Social Media 3.0: I want to spend more time online with close friends and with strangers from around the world.

Humans are social animals, and I envision socialization as a set of concentric circles:

Rings 1 and 4 are more about connection; Rings 2 and 3 are more about status. I want to spend more time in the innermost ring (e.g., iMessage and WhatsApp) and in the outermost ring (e.g., TikTok and Clubhouse). Ring 1 helps me build deep, intimate relationships. Ring 4 helps me discover new people for creativity and learning. The next wave of social platforms will also be built to serve rings 1 and 4.

I’m always amazed by how fluently and authentically Gen Zs interact online. My approach to social media will always be more guarded. I’ve been at Stanford for two years, but haven’t ever posted about it; keeping it off social media preserves it as a special experience. It feels less invasive to post a glossy, curated travel photo from last summer than to livestream tonight’s dinner with friends. This hands-off approach and inherent skepticism toward social media is indicative of “the social media in-betweeners”.

In 2021, I’m hoping to reinvent how I spend time on social media. I’m excited to lean into the positive elements of Social Media 3.0—connection, community, learning—while keeping in check the more toxic elements of the 2.0 era.

Sources & Additional Reading

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