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In 2020, social media will be less social

Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes explains trends that will change how we use social media, and why 2020 will almost certainly be a year of reckoning.

In 2020, social media will be less social
[Photo: LinkedIn Sales Navigator/Unsplash; natrot/iStock]

For the world of social media, 2020 arrives with no shortage of drama. As the U.S. presidential election cycle shifts into high gear, controversies over political ads and privacy have resurfaced, with talk of “breaking up” the big networks gaining momentum. At the same time, brand new social platforms like TikTok have emerged to give the old guard a run for its money. 

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How will users and networks respond to these changes? In its annual Social Media Trends Report, Hootsuite surveyed thousands of businesses and users, from small agencies to huge enterprises, to see how they plan to adapt in 2020. Here’s my take on some of the most salient findings from the report and a look at what the year ahead holds:

Social media gets less social

Considering the controversies that have surrounded social networks of late, it’s no surprise to see that users are fleeing public platforms for the relative privacy of messaging apps and closed groups. Today, 63% of people prefer sharing and talking about content in private channels, and that trend only stands to accelerate in the year ahead. Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg himself announced that “the future is private” at the 2019 F8 developer conference. Private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups now represent some of Facebook’s fastest growing areas.  

Expect to see private and one-to-one platforms continue to thrive in 2020. Case(s) in point: the newly launched Threads from Instagram is a “camera-first messaging app that helps you stay connected to your close friends.” LinkedIn is exploring the Teammates concept to help users tighten their circle on the network and see more updates from select people. And Facebook’s new Portal device is primarily a one-to-one communication tool, supporting direct video calling via WhatsApp and Messenger. 

Companies grow a backbone on social media 

President Trump’s slash-and-burn tactics on Twitter, as well as the #MeToo era’s embrace of radical transparency, have jolted organizations into a realization: Operating quietly, behind closed doors, isn’t always a viable option. This mirrors demands from consumers themselves. Seventy-three percent of customers say a company’s ethics matter more than they did a year ago, while 67% of employees say they would refuse to work for an organization that did not share their values.

Translation: More businesses will see the value of finding a voice (and a backbone) on social media in the year ahead. Levi Strauss illustrates how to do this right. The company had a flawless debut on the New York Stock Exchange in March 2019—using social media and other channels to express their commitment toward the environment, gun control, LGBTQ rights, and parental leave as a competitive advantage. On the other hand, recent unsuccessful campaigns by Pepsi and Gillette show social media won’t stand for “woke washing.” Commitment to causes must be more than just skin-deep.

TikTok explodes . . . one way or the other

TikTok, the hot new social platform built around lip-syncing videos, went from obscurity to mainstream domination in 2019. It consistently ranked among the top-three most-installed apps worldwide and now boasts 800 million monthly active users. What’s behind the runaway success? A nearly unlimited ad budget ($3 million a day, by some estimates) and next gen AI for targeting users has certainly helped. But the real secret sauce may simply be that TikTok lets users run wild with creativity and have a little fun. Its goofy memes and hashtag challenges harken back to an earlier, more authentic era of social media before slickly produced Instagram influencers dominated our feeds. (Behind the scenes, however, TikTok has already seen more than its share of controversy, from concerns about child predators to outcry over its banning of content related to mass incarceration of Uighurs in China.) 

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Will TikTok’s success last in 2020? There are certainly storm clouds gathering. TikTok is Chinese-owned, which has generated serious concerns about how data from users abroad is being collected and used. Meanwhile, the network is by some accounts now losing users nearly as fast as it’s gaining new ones. But the biggest threat may be that larger social networks are already co-opting its best features. Facebook debuted a stand-alone TikTok clone called Lasso in 2018, though it has hardly been a runaway hit. Facebook-owned Instagram also started offering a TikTok-like feature, called Reels, to its 1.5 billion users in November 2019. 

The incentive system on social media (finally) evolves

In recent years, we’ve seen many of the very same features that make networks vital also create larger systemic problems. Algorithms to surface interesting updates end up prioritizing provocative and misleading news. Metrics like followers and likes encourage mindless sharing and undercut meaningful engagement. A commitment to open dialogue gives free rein to bullies and trolls.  

But we’re finally starting to see concrete action taken to address these issues, most visibly in Instagram’s high-profile decision to test hiding like counts in the U.S. and other key markets. The motivation: encourage users to engage with videos and photos on their own merits, rather than simply following the herd. This mirrors similar features being tested on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. In 2020, expect networks to continue some deeper soul-searching about how to incentivize healthy, meaningful engagement—goaded by users, critics, and politicians like Elizabeth Warren. Meanwhile, social media influencers may see their impact significantly diminished as likes and followers are deprioritized in favor of one-on-one interaction. 

Ad overload reaches a crisis point

Political ads on social media are a lightning rod right now, with Twitter banning them and Facebook embracing them in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. But it’s not just concerns about misleading content and foreign meddling that have users up in arms. The larger reality is we may have reached “peak ad” on social platforms—86 million users now use ad blocking software to block $20 billion worth of ads each year in the U.S. alone. Research shows that we’re sick of ads and increasingly skilled at tuning them out.

The problem is that existing social networks rely heavily on ads to bring in revenue. (Facebook generates upward of 98% of its revenue from ads, while for Twitter the share is around 85%.) But in 2020 we may see other models begin to emerge and gain traction. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales quietly launched his own network, WT:Social, in 2019, as an ad-free rival to Facebook, with a Wikipedia-style “donation” model of support. Chinese networks like Tencent (the parent company of WeChat and QQ) show another way forward. Only 17% of Tencent’s  revenue comes from ads. The rest comes from a highly diversified stream including gaming (37%), ecommerce payments and other fees (23%), and value-added services like video subscriptions (24%).

Zooming out, 2020 promises to be a year of transition on social media. There’s a clearer understanding than ever of the limits and pitfalls of our networked world. Users and politicians are demanding more. Social platforms are acknowledging systemic challenges and promising to find solutions. But the 2020 presidential election will be the ultimate testing ground to see if their promises can be made reality. 

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About the author

Ryan Holmes is the CEO of Hootsuite, a social media management system with more than 10 million users. A college dropout, he started a paintball company and pizza restaurant before founding Invoke Media, the company that developed Hootsuite in 2009. Today, Holmes is an authority on the social business revolution, quoted in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and called upon to speak at TEDx and SXSW Interactive Conferences

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