Is social media becoming less social?
In early 2018, Facebook users were stunned to learn that Cambridge Analytica had used a loophole in Facebook’s API to harvest data from millions of users who had not given free and informed consent for the use of their data. Prior to this reveal, people around the world were already growing concerned about the spread of fake news and misinformation on social media and how this information may influence elections. This event sent apprehensions into overdrive and even sparked a #DeleteFacebook online movement, of sorts.
Of course, young people were already engaging in social media habits that looked somewhat different than that of previous users. The popularity of platforms like snapchat, and the use of chat, google docs, and private groups for socializing was a strategy teens used to keep their social media presence free from parental prying. Online norms are changing as people realize that having a thousand online “friends” is not as rewarding as having a more focused community group that happens to be connected via online platforms.
In response to these trends, as well as in response to the problem of fake news transmission, Facebook and other social networks have begun to shift focus away from broadcast messaging by large organizations on their platforms, and towards more individualized and personalized interactions between close friends, families and closed groups. We are currently witnessing a private or community turn in how people use social media, and how social media platforms are directing their resources.
It seems that, when given a choice, most people prefer to control their social networks to favor a smaller group of closer friends and peers. It turns out that broadcasting to a large number of people feels like a chore, and people prefer to control the information they share, limiting specific information to specific groups. Context collapse occurs when information intended for one audience (for example, work colleagues), ends up with another audience (for example, family). When given the choice, it seems we prefer to avoid situations that set us up for context collapse.
I think the private or community turn is a welcome development, but it is also a challenge with respect to the challenge of communication. How do you reach a group when you are not a member? Furthermore, how can we prevent fake news if it is being spread at the community level – person to person via email or chat – rather than at the broadcast level – going viral on social media platforms? These challenges will rise to the fore over the next several years.
What this also shows is that the hacker ethic of radical and complete transparency doesn’t work for most people. In contrast to Zuckerberg’s 2010 blog post, people DO want privacy. They don’t want to be at the center of a surveillance machine, and they prefer smaller communities over larger ones. Communicators and platform developers should think about how they can navigate this new reality.