2021 was an important year for many reasons, and between the global pandemic and social unrest, social media platforms took on a whole new meaning.
Indeed, there is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic will leave a different world in its wake. The varied impact of social media, from the rise of TikTok to the support for Black Lives Matter, was felt by companies and consumers alike.
But how is the social media landscape likely to develop? And perhaps more importantly, what are the challenges faced by social media platforms in terms of realizing the responsibility they have for their content, and the subsequent influence they have on society?
In recent years, there have been significant changes regarding the popularity of different social media platforms. Firstly, platforms that used to be the most influential have started to lose their impact. This is especially true with platforms like Facebook, which is much less popular amongst younger generations now compared to a few years ago.
Instead, 20-somethings have turned to Instagram, and teenagers have downloaded TikTok in the millions. TikTok surged in popularity during the course of the pandemic. The video-based platform produces content of 15 to 60 seconds, corresponding exactly to the attention span of the younger generation on the app.
Unlike Facebook, which delivers random material from selected people, TikTok’s algorithm sifts the videos created by all its users and only sends content that it expects a user to like. Content selection is purely based on artificial intelligence algorithms. And in 2020, locked-down youngsters certainly liked it.
With schools closed across the globe, meaning young people have been stuck at home, it certainly feels like half the teenagers in the western world decided to join TikTok and create content. Beyond this unexpected free time, there have been more profound reasons for the platform’s popularity.
Although there’s some choreography in someone dancing to a song, it’s also very genuine and unfiltered. With other media, teenagers feel a lot of pressure to photoshop their image, so that it fulfills what they believe to be the beauty standards of that platform. This can create problems later, such as body-shaming and depression. TikTok is generally much more authentic. I think that TikTok’s growth during the pandemic is partly due to young people’s boredom, and partly because they have been seeking more honest content.
For companies, TikTok’s rise in popularity has highlighted the power of the digital landscape. Social media is the only realistic way for advertisers to reach a young audience that doesn’t watch TV, listen to the radio, or read newspapers. Young people today watch YouTube and Netflix, listen to podcasts, and consume their news from social media instead.
But if social media is a powerful shop window, it can also be a tricky one to manage. Among the mistakes made by brands is to treat their influencers like advertising agencies, and to give them very detailed briefs. This can result in 20 different influencers all producing the same content, which is repetitive and artificial. In this case, the brief is so precise that there is no room left for creativity.
To be convincing in today’s social media landscape, brands need to switch from briefing, to approving (or not) – what an influencer has created. As well as this, brands also need to keep up with the rapid pace of developing trends. Understandably cautious, they can take weeks to create, approve and publish a video in response to an online trend. However, by this point it might already be too late, as trends on TikTok become last week’s news very quickly.
The way social media platforms respond to events, major news stories, or dealing with the threat of fake news also changed. In July 2020, over 1,000 firms boycotted Facebook in protest of its handling of misinformation and hate speech, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. By supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, the brands earned credit for their stance, while Facebook sustained reputational and financial damage. Meanwhile, the decision by Twitter to flag inaccuracies or unsubstantiated claims by Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, followed by his ban from the app completely, showed that other tech companies were finally willing to act.
Therefore, just as TikTok is an alternative to the fake lifestyles pictured on Facebook and Instagram, this desire to combat fake news is likely to be a growing feature of social media in the years ahead. For brands, though, tackling fake news or false claims about them is difficult, with few options other than asking Facebook or Google to remove content, or threatening legal action. With this in mind, brands may have to accept that social media cannot be totally controlled and managed.
However, from fake news and hate speech, to algorithmic bias, forcing social media platforms to take responsibility for their content is a major issue. This is particularly important when you consider the influence social media has on the younger generation, which has only intensified during the pandemic. Of course, there is no doubt that social media has connected people around the world and provided unprecedented ways to communicate instantaneously. Yet concerns are growing about its effects on our wellbeing, and particularly on the physical and mental health of younger people. As such, this is something social media platforms will have to take into much greater consideration in the years ahead.
Over the course of the last year the ways in which social media platforms were used amongst both consumers and brands changed a lot, and their influence on society has been both positive and negative. However, there is no doubt that the social media landscape will continue to change, and its growing impact on the younger generation cannot be ignored. As a result, the key challenges for social media for the next five years will not be to come up with a new TikTok – it will be responsibility and regulation. Tech moves far faster than lawmakers, and because there are people who set out to cause harm on social media, platforms need to have the toolset to stop them before these apps become a formidable presence within society.
Michael Haenlein is Professor of Marketing at ESCP Business School