Without a doubt, 2020 will go down as one of the craziest years ever on social media. Not only was there the coronavirus pandemic, but also there were riots in major U.S. cities, difficult conversations about race and equity in America, and of course, a bitterly contested election. All of a sudden, real life became virtual, and all online discourse across social media became strident, divisive and controversial. We worked from home, our kids went to school via Zoom, and there were no longer physical, real-world destinations (like the corner coffee shop) where we could engage in civil conversations. So no wonder the whole social media space seems so topsy-turvy these days.
What will the “new normal” look like on social media?
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that people are already talking about the “new normal” on social media. After a painful year of forced quarantine, social media experts from all corners of the web have been sharing their thoughts on what social media might look like over the next 12 months. Some have suggested that all we really need is a few more months and everything will go back to the way it was in 2019. But is that really the case? If anything, 2021 seems just as crazy as 2020, with capitol rioters and a Texas winter storm crisis of epic proportions added on top of forced lockdowns and nationwide vaccine rollouts. And don’t forget – at a recent CNN town hall event, President Joe Biden suggested that we might have to wait until Christmas before things start to normalize.
So let’s consider a few possible scenarios…
Scenario #1: Silicon Valley reinvents itself
One possible scenario, of course, is that the big Silicon Valley companies re-invent themselves for the new socio-economic reality. Already, we’ve seen evidence that this might happen. Facebook, for example, has already announced that it is tweaking its algorithm to promote more civil discourse online and “healthier communities” (whatever that means). Twitter continues to launch new features like Birdwatch in order to cut down on all the misinformation and disinformation online. And even WIRED magazine got into the act, suggesting a new “etiquette manual” for social media that would encourage people to, among other things, “never argue but with men of sense.” (In other words, stop arguing with online trolls!)
Scenario #2: Social media upstarts define the “new normal”
Another possible scenario is that the new social media upstarts (companies like Gab, Parler, Telegram and Signal) begin to carve out bigger and bigger niches for themselves. By so doing, they might be able to come up with a “new normal” that makes sense for everyone. After all, Facebook and Twitter have failed, at least to some extent, in promoting full free speech online. Surely, others can do better. Right now, it looks like all the new features and options coming from the likes of Facebook and Twitter are just “tweaks” or “adjustments” or “incremental improvements.” In order to make any radical changes in the “new normal,” we might need a bigger role for smaller upstarts. That’s the way competition is supposed to work in non-monopolistic markets, right?
Scenario #3: Foreign social media companies lead the way
Perhaps the most uncomfortable scenario is that foreign companies from places like China start to define the “new normal” on social media. Arguably, you could make the point that Chinese-owned TikTok has already won the hearts and minds of young Americans. So what would really stop Americans – aside from government intervention – from also embracing platforms like WeChat as well? One possible analogy here would be something like what the nation experienced in the automotive sector in the 1970s and 1980s – people stopped buying U.S.-made vehicles in favor of better-made vehicles from Japan and then, later, South Korea. Walk around any parking lot these days, and you’re likely to see more Toyota, Honda, Kia and Hyundai vehicles than those from GM and Ford. Maybe that’s the way it’ll eventually be with social media? Only the staunch “buy American” crowd will still use Facebook, and everybody else will use social media platforms made in China, India or Japan?
Of course, each of these scenarios comes with a whole host of possible unintended consequences. If we let the entrenched social media companies lead the way, then it’s hard to see how we become any less divisive of a nation. At this point in time, do you really still trust Mark Zuckerberg to do the right thing? And if we let China lead the way (yikes!), then we risk throttling time-tested American values like freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That means it’s up to each of us – the regular, everyday users of social media – to be the change that we want to be. If we would like everybody else around us to become more civil and rational, then we all need to do our part as well.