It has been just over ten years since Instagram launched and rounded out the triumvirate of the next decade of social media, with Vine, Snapchat, and most recently TikTok, among others, exhibiting their influence, too. There has been a ton of evolution and developments across platforms, user behaviors, creative trends, and strategy and tactics.
And, yet, as the 2010’s roll over the 2020’s, it’s hard not to notice the principles, behaviors, and ‘trends’ of yesteryear emerging in new forms. What’s old is new again.
So as countless articles come out now looking back on 2019 or trying to predict what’s to come in 2020, this one will set out to try and decipher why a lot of what’s prevailing today isn’t all that dissimilar to what the first digitally-enabled generation, yep the Millennials, grew up with and why it’s those deeper patterns of human behavior that’ll stand the test of time in the decade to come, and beyond.
Facebook didn’t start social media. Neither did MySpace or Friendster. No, the first memories most of us have of connecting with others — socializing on media — came with America Online. Before there were followers and friends, there were buddies. Before feeds and stories and trends, there were chat rooms. Before it became about who could reach the most people, it was about communicating one-on-one, with friends or even with faceless others across the country who found themselves in the same chat room.
For years, broadcasting became the ambition. Trying to reach the most people with your message, chasing those big numbers, those vanity metrics. But look around today and the evolutionary pyramid is on the way back to intimacy. Endless feeds peppered with brands, friends, family, acquaintances, and, well, ‘randoms, are starting to more and more to be replaced with time spent on Messenger, WhatsApp, close friends group chats, and the like. We’d rather converse with a few than casually and loosely connect with the many.
In many ways, it’s starting to feel like we’re back where we started with AIM (or MSN Messenger, especially for the international peeps). So herein lies the light bulb, the insight. Genuine, intimate connections will always prevail and as cool as it is to throw your content or idea into the ether, it’s more satisfying and rewarding to have a good conversation with one or a few at a time. The difference today is that there are countless ways to enhance messaging, whether that’s with emojis, filters, GIFs, and music. The root behavior is still there, but we can make it better.
Speaking of music, it’s clear how much music now penetrates so much of social media nowadays. There was a time over the last decade when music became more commoditized, when MySpace tried to restructure themselves around music, when PureVolume and SoundCloud and the like were just kinda there.
Music formed the backbone of early ‘social media,’ as many of us used Napster, LimeWire, Kazaa, and many others, which were file sharing sites first and foremost. I can still remember myself today how thoughtful my favorite bands list was on my MySpace profile. Well, music — not just the personalities and soap operas that comprise the culture across artists — pure music is making a comeback, forming the soundtrack of countless TikToks racking up millions and millions of views.
So, looking ahead, what can we learn from the powerful potion of music to continue to engage fans and enhance content? There are a number of directions to speculate: teams and leagues creating their own music, more and more content synced to music (AI could help here, too), more content around specific player music tastes or talents, and as more power players get their mitts into the sports space, perhaps a more formal relationship or synergy with the music side of an agency and the sport, or a league/team partnering with a record label. Not too many industries have the potential to be bosom buddies like sports and music, not too many industries have ‘fans’ instead of customers, so the future ahead sure sounds like it’ll have some music behind it, in front of it, or both.
One of the more intriguing social behaviors of the last half decade has been the rapid growth of Twitch, primarily on the back of esports and gaming. Many of the Millennial generation grew up playing video games, sure, but watching others while waiting for one’s turn to play hardly seemed ideal. But it wasn’t so bad if a group of friends were around to talk to while others took their turn. It was never just about video games, it was about socializing, and the video games in this case gave a mutual live topic of interest and an atmosphere to socialize.
Squinting one’s eyes just a little and it doesn’t sound all that different from those early chat rooms back in the AOL days. Put the AOL chat room and Twitch live chat feeds alongside one another today and they may not look too different outside of the emojis and stickers on Twitch. Both represent places connections are happening in real-time, ad-hoc and lasting communities are formed, and, ultimately, it is the innate desire to know someone on the other side is listening that stands the test of time and path of platforms.
As the next decade begins, the propensity for live conversation, for chatter will continue to evolve, but perhaps we’ll see something akin to the chatrooms of days old. Places where live chatter can happen around a number of topics, interests, and events. Forums and online communities became more live, started happening alongside live content, and are just a bit more interactive today. The on-demand community, the always-own forum is as old as time, and will continue to persist in the years to come.
Quick — without thinking much, what was the first piece of digital real estate you could really call your own? Maybe it was a Facebook page, a blogspot, a MySpace profile; but for many of us that first true ‘profile’ was the AIM profile. It was a place to list one’s basic bio, their likes, and many changed it up or updated it frequently. (Along with ever-present ‘away message’). Eventually everyone ended up on Facebook, but traffic to profiles, along with the effort put into them, started waning the day that News Feed was first introduced.
Somewhere along the way the engagement and interaction in the Feed became more frequent and more important than the profile. And while static profiles aren’t making a comeback, social media is certainly more about the self than ever before. Almost every user is a wannabe influencer or micro-influencer, a majority of individuals are cognizant of their online ‘brand as we enter 2020, carefully cultivating who they want to be and how they want to be perceived through their posts, their voice, their bio, and, yes, their profiles.
Where might this focus on the self go? It’s playing out right now with more people posting than ever, especially in Stories, and a platform like TikTok, which wants to invite every user to participate and seeks to make content creation easier for anyone. The emerging generation wants to cultivate their online presence, the platforms are meeting that desire, and we’re back to the future as users seek to develop and decorate their own place and persona on the Internet.
If you’ve been on Facebook since the last decade, there’s a good chance your ‘network’ is a mix of family, old friends, new friends, and a handful of random people you met in the early ‘friend everyone’ phase or crossed paths with on a semester abroad or a recreational soccer league. It was a way to turn offline relationships into online.
Somewhere along the way, our actively engaged social networks mostly began to shrink, and the magic occurs more often turning an online relationship into one that includes physically paths as a sign of solidification. But as this decade ends, the old is becoming new again, in some subtle ways. We’re now seeking and using ways to spark those new relationships — that may start with a chance meeting because of a mutual interest or crossing paths (while out and about on social).
It’s playing out in dating apps and around gaming, but how can social media help foster the genesis and kindling of these new relationships? There could be a stronger intra-social movement to come within the communities that form around celebrities, TV shows, music, gamers, YouTubers, and certainly as strong as ever around sports teams. One of the most beautiful things that can happen in sports, whether on social media or at the game, is when true relationships form between individuals who were brought together because of the team. As a generation comes of age more accustomed to cultivating relationships via mobile device than real-life experiences, the ability for teams, leagues, brands, whomever to facilitate the formation of stronger connections will become integral.
It was a long time ago, but it doesn’t feel that long ago when so many eschewed social media because “no one cares what I had for lunch today.” Well, a glance at many Instagram Stories will show otherwise. But it has certainly evolved over the last decade as photos gave way to video, to Live, GIFs, graphics, music, and the conglomeration of all those elements on TikTok.
But even as reality becomes more augmented and content more complex, there is another movement that is bringing back the value of raw. The extraordinary in the ordinary. Fans may enjoy some cool productions, but they also want to see something unedited, some unabashedly real. Studies have come out in the last year or so that have shown real photos and videos perform better for social media, whether organic or paid, than those that come off expertly produced. That’s not say we’re going back completely to raw and untrained video, but simply that it’s worth appreciating that there remains a desire for something real, too.
Regardless of how sophisticated technology and media gets, it seems there are still inherent tenets of communication, connection, and humanity that persist through it all. The cave paintings of prehistory are the emojis of today; the more things change, the more the big ideas remain the same. No one can say for sure what 2030 will look like, but there will be relationships, there will be art, and there will be stories.