Photo Credit: pexels
When the coronavirus pandemic first flared up this year, many expected the new “stay at home” reality to become a huge growth driver for social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. After all, wouldn’t people be hanging out online instead of in real life? And wouldn’t people who had never before used social media suddenly be forced into relying on Facebook or Twitter for news about the pandemic and local lockdowns?
But that really hasn’t been the case, judging from statistics on social media usage from eMarketer. Yes, social media engagement is up by almost 10 percent for those already on these platforms, but the number of new social media users has barely budged in 2020 (up just 3.3% so far). So that raises an interesting question: Has social media become the latest victim of the pandemic?
Fake news, misinformation and divisive content
One possible explanation for the failure of the big social media platforms to pick up more new users during the pandemic is that many people are simply turned off by all the fake news, misinformation and divisive content on the platform. Hanging out with friends and family is all well and good, but what if your family members start getting into heated discussions and debates about politics every time they use Facebook?
The election of 2020 was one of – if not the – most divisive and controversial in history, and the social media platforms didn’t help matters here. Newsfeeds, optimized for engagement, overflowed with fake news and misinformation. And the voices that managed to make it past the algorithms were almost always loud, obnoxious and divisive. And now even content about the pandemic is controversial, thanks to mask mandates, vaccine speculations and lockdown restrictions.
Social media saturation point
Add in the fact that many social media users were already clamoring for a “social media detox” even before the pandemic broke, and it’s possible that lapsed users who gave up their social media accounts have likely found little reason to sign back on, and where even some current users may be feeling like they need a break. Maybe, just maybe, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) has been replaced by JOMO (Joy of Missing Out).
Plus, consider the fact that social media platforms like Facebook have already reached peak market penetration rates in the United States. According to eMarketer, social media now has an 81.3% penetration rate of adult Internet users, leaving platforms like Facebook little new room to grow. Heading into 2020, it looked like Facebook was going to continue its remarkable growth curve by tapping into the older adult population. And, indeed, even in 2020, the biggest jump in new social media users came from adult users over the age of 35. But it’s clear by now that all young users have already signed up, and any new growth from Facebook is going to come from the graying portion of the U.S. population – not exactly the type of growth scenario that any brand wants to be facing.
What happens after the pandemic?
So, at a time when some niches of the Internet world – such as online videoconferencing – seem to be experiencing record growth, social media is just hobbling along. Even during a pandemic, when most of the population is still under lockdown measures of some kind, social media hasn’t had a real breakout moment.
This could create some interesting problems for companies like Facebook and Twitter in the future. Previously, Wall Street investors were willing to overlook all sorts of problems at these companies (such as huge privacy fiascos) as long as they were growing rapidly. But if the growth ends, will it mean that investors start to look elsewhere for a healthy return on their investment? If that happens, we might look back on 2020 as the year that the pandemic claimed social media as one of its highest-profile victims.