The future of social media at the turn of the decade

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At the close of 2019, the number of social media users worldwide had hit 3.5 billion. Social media’s rapid growth has had a significant impact on our daily lives – transforming how we connect with not only each other, but also with the media and brands. So, at the turn of the decade what future changes can we predict to see on the horizon?

Enforced regulation

Although social media has clearly brought benefits to society and companies, it also brings downsides and dangers such as cyberbullying, online harassment, depression, body image insecurities and fear of missing out (FOMO). Previously left to self-regulate, the UK government has recently announced that more power will be given to watchdog Ofcom to force social media companies to take increased responsibility for their content.

The pressure to regulate in the digital sphere will almost certainly restrict how advertisers can target and what content can be promoted, thus leading to greater transparency on how data is being used. For instance, Facebook already allows users to manage interest-based ads under account settings and we should expect more companies to follow this trend.

Enforced regulations could encourage users to increase trust in social media networks. This will potentially reflect in higher engagement. On the other hand, advertisers will have restricted targeting capabilities which might translate to media spend wastage, lower ad engagement and reduced opportunities for advertising customisation.

Organically, social platforms may see a diminished capability to serve users curated content if they are limited in data collection.

Data and privacy

Events such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal made us realise the power of social media and data as well as the limitations of current social media regulations. Users are becoming aware that data is power. One sign of this is that searches for ‘My Activity’ on Google have been increasing year on year.

Users are already changing their privacy settings in order to include the minimum information on social media and accounts are being deleted. Users will continue to push for this with heightened privacy concerns as the world becomes ever more digital. Demographically, younger audiences are increasingly conscious of data privacy and security, which will further add to the soft and hard restrictions placed upon social media.

This trend may well open alternative commercial models for social media networks, such as subscriptions which allow a reduced need for personal data. Another possible solution would be to reward users that share their data.

WeChat-like social networks

As more people rely on their phones to make payments, store boarding passes and manage their finances, the opportunity for social media players to blend social and financial functionalities into one platform is growing.

WeChat is the perfect example of how social media, commerce and entertainment can merge. More than a social media network, it allows users to do day-to-day tasks such as storing their IDs, paying their utilities and getting access to public services, including booking doctor appointments, applying for visas and checking driving records.

Facebook is already experimenting in this space and it had plans to launch its own cryptocurrency named Libra this year. This service might not necessarily be integrated with the Facebook social media platform, but it gives a hint on future possibilities.

Western social platforms will inevitably try to follow WeChat but it is unlikely that they will be allowed to play the role as fully as WeChat does in China. This is because in most countries, data privacy concerns and increases in regulation will be pushing social networks in the opposite direction.

Multi-networking

The number of social media accounts per person has been growing among all demographics. The multi-networking effect is a response to the increase number of platforms options, but it's also being caused by a degree of specialization (e.g. Twitch, Pinterest, and TikTok).

Social media usage will continue to increase in developing countries, but it has generally plateaued among in advanced economies. As more specialised social media platforms arise, the number of social media platforms per user can still increase across all age groups, particularly among millennials and Gen X. However, time spend on social media will be similar to what it currently is.

How we consume content will change

The way we consume content is always changing and therefore new social media networks will emerge as a natural response to these changes. Younger demographics will be the earlier adopters, as we saw with Snapchat and are seeing with TikTok.

Video has become by far the most popular format. Views of branded video content increased by 258% since 2016, and on Twitter a video is 6x more likely to be retweeted than a photo. It’s not hard to guess that new social media platforms will be focused on video and powered by AI.

Additionally, voice search is exponentially increasing which will also impact social media behaviour in the coming decade as people type less and start relying voice recognition systems to do this job for them.

While phones will remain the main device for accessing social media, the usage of AR and VR devices will also increase in the next decade as they get lighter and more versatile, expanding their usage beyond gaming.

Shifts from the current climate

At the close of the decade social media was making headlines for its negative impacts. Due to COVID-19, screen time will increase as individuals re/download apps to stay connected with friends and family, and to keep entertained. Some platforms will emerge from this dark time with a larger, more diverse and more engaged user base than ever before and perhaps social media will regain respect through reigniting its original charm as a way for us to all stay connected.

It can be challenging to predict the future of social media as it’s a fast-changing environment but hopefully it will move towards a safer and more democratic place.

Erika Mendes is head of biddable at Roast

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