The grand ambition to connect the world, otherwise known as social media has failed. It’s made us more politically polarized, increased our anxiety and made us more addicted to our digital devices. The hypothesis around social media made sense.
The more connected we are, the more likely we are to maintain and nurture interpersonal relationships.
The more connected we are, the more likely we are going to benefit from the marketplace of ideas.
The more connected we are, the more likely we’ll feel supported.
Instead, it’s fallen short in dramatic fashion. We now maintain friendships with people we barely know. The marketplace of ideas has led to misinformation spreading faster than factual information. And instead of feeling supported, we feel pressure as we compare our real lives to the filtered lives our friends share on social media.
It’s this context that makes a recent study at Stanford incredibly interesting. They asked people to give up Facebook and see what happens. These users found themselves spending less time online and more time with family and friends. They become less informed but also less polarized politically. Their mental health improved, and when the study concluded, most of them planned to spend less time on the social network after spending time away.
Right now it’s easy to jump on the social media critique bandwagon, and I say all of this fully knowing I was a major proponent of social media’s potential for society and marketing. Now, we’ve seen what “peak” social media is capable of and the outcomes aren’t very encouraging.
The Inevitable Swing Back
There has to be a balance. One can’t dismiss the good social media’s had on the world, the power its given to voices that need to be heard and the positivity that can come from being connected to one another. That’s why balance is coming. Social media isn’t going away, but its potential to be a societal negative is being tempered:
By users: People are opting more and more to turn to social to maintain their most intimate, personal connections. That’s fueling the growth of messaging services from WhatsApp to Messenger to iMessages. Users are doing less to broadcast their idealized lives to the masses and doing more to nurture the relationships that mean the most in more intimate social settings.
By platforms: Whether they want to or not the platforms are doing more to maintain control over what voices are being distributed on their platforms and which are not. We saw this with the ban of Alex Jones from the major platforms and an overall emphasis on “trusted” publishers in their algorithms. Even Pinterest is taking a stand by no longer allowing anti-vaccination misinformation to show up in search results.
By regulators: It’s clear that the platforms are unable to police themselves when it comes to personal data protection. That’s why we’ll likely see regulation similar to GDPR here in the United States. Social platforms are also putting data control in the hands of its users to a limited degree. This year Facebook is planning to unveil a feature that will allow users to delete their history from the platform. This is scary for data-driven marketers—myself included. But establishing the limits will give every business a bar they can push up to but not beyond.
It’s time to call it. Social media hasn’t been all it was cracked up to be, but there is hope. There are shifts in the climate as the inevitable backlash to social begins, and those shifts are critical for marketers who have grown accustomed to social as a cornerstone in their marketing plans to understand.