There are now 1.79 billion people on Facebook. There are 320 million on Twitter. There are 400 million on Instagram.
We think these social media juggernauts will keep going, swallowing eyeballs and minds, country by country, until they run out of victims. The idea that 2 billion Facebook users would leave the service is ridiculous, right?
There is a slow but heavy backlash brewing against all social media on multiple fronts. Social media hurts us. Researchers at the University of Delaware discovered that social media can increase social anxiety and depression. Regular users are finding that the all-knowing algorithms used by Twitter and Facebook are hiding important news and, as evidenced by recent political changes, they make it easy to go down a rabbit hole of one’s own opinion.
Publishers and journalists are also finding out that Facebook and Twitter are awful ways to spread news and important work. The social media updraft after posting something particularly interesting is limited and fades quickly. A few thousand retweets or shares may seem great, but converting those to actual readers or turning the Tweets and comments into actual discussion is far more difficult if not impossible.
I believe we are entering a Third Age of sharing. The first age, the Newlywed Age, as it were, brought the first chat rooms and webcams. Sites like Jennicam and Julie & Julia allowed writers to bare their souls to faceless audiences and result was a wave of emotional and highly personal content that led to services like Tumblr and WordPress. This era is characterized by users baring it all at all costs. It was expository and kind of kinky.
Fast forward a few years and the first social networks grew out of these high-bandwidth services. Myspace and Friendster were popular and, thanks to tech-savvy students, Facebook and Twitter rose to prominence. Why did they grow? Because they were easy to use and they didn’t cost much time or money to create. Vine and Instagram grew popular because you didn’t need a film crew or nice camera to become a visual artist. Facebook is social shorthand, allowing you to create an online personality out of a few cryptic comments.
This era, the Social Era, brought about an ethos of quick, dirty, and careless. In fact we now volunteer massive amounts of personal information willingly. That’s about to change.
Social media is also no longer a safe place. The things we post there have real-world consequences. Whereas the web was once a broadcast medium it is now a two-way or many-to-many medium. Our errant Twitter thoughts can make us targets and we often don’t know we’re being watched. Entire wars can break out online that have real-world consequences—see Pizzagate—and hoaxes flit through the memetic bloodstream like cancer, breaking down our defenses. The fake news phenomenon isn’t new, but the fact that fake news gets more eyeballs than real news is disastrous.
We’re nearly at the Age of Privacy. Services like Snapchat and Telegram revel in their security and ability destroy messages as they’re sent. End-to-end encryption is more exciting than photo filters and the next big move in social media will allow us unmediated and secure access to our friends, family, and fans. While it’s hard to imagine how these sorts of things would work, you can look to blockchain technology and encryption for ideas on how the next news site, book, or media project will be distributed. We will pay a small amount to each other to gain a moment of attention, to pay for an article read, or to simply support an artist working in her medium. Further, there will be no middleman, no Apple or Google or Facebook to take their cut. The next Age could be as free and open as the original internet and secure by design.
If you don’t think Facebook can end up a graveyard, I have some stock in Myspace I can sell you. And if you don’t think the sort of micropayment and micro attention economy I’m describing can work, we need only point to the rise of the internet. What we do know for certain, however, is that the next revolution in social media is the most important. It is the rise of the individual in control of her own arguably important online existence and it is the social media that finally allows us to stay quiet.
John Biggs is a writer and entrepreneur. His latest book is “Marie Antoinette’s Watch: Adultery, Larceny & Perpetual Motion” and he is working on a new project, WalkTo.co.