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Future of Social Media

So today I learned some very interesting things from an 11-year-old about social media.  For some background, I now make it a habit to strike up conversations with young people (let me be specific – those about 13 and under) because I want them to teach me about the future of social media.  This might seem like a strange proposition, since many of them are not even “allowed” to have a Facebook page yet, let alone want one (like the 11-year-old in question).  But an article I came across a few years ago really stuck with me, and I realized that the future of social media, or at least the future popularity of social media platforms, is not all that difficult to see.  Just see what young people are using today, and project that forward (with a slight amount of error, anyway).

So what did I learn?  I learned that it is now possible to ask a regular user of social media “do you know what MySpace is?” and have them say, “um, no”.  I also learned that the more important question to ask a young person is not “Do you have a Facebook account?” or “Are you allowed to have a Facebook account yet?”, but rather, “Do you want a Facebook account?”.  I wasted precious time by asking the first question, to which my young friend replied “no”.  When I asked him if he was interested in a Facebook account, his response did not change.  Interesting.

In the short term, there was a lot of commotion surrounding the unpublished paper that came from some Princeton grad students which predicted Facebook would lose 80% of its user base by 2017.  This was based on search trends which were tied to MySpace’s decline, which were beginning to appear for Facebook.  While much effort was spent on debunking and contextualizing the study, there is an uncomfortable fact (at least for Facebook) that is difficult to ignore – Facebook is no longer cool.  This is not news.  It hasn’t been cool for quite some time.  I have watched the torch of coolness (or at least, most-liked-by-young-people-ness) get passed from Facebook, to Twitter, to Instagram, to Snapchat.  The point that I want to make here is that seeing the future of social media trends and habits is as simple as seeing what 13-year-olds and under are using today.  Whatever they grow up using is what they are more likely to use when they are college-aged and beyond. 

And here is why.  Another point that my young friend made was that he liked a blog post he read recently which described each social media platform by its user base.  Facebook was for “people over 40”.  Think about it, when was the last time young people couldn’t wait to be old enough to do what mommy and daddy and grandmom were doing (alcohol consumption notwithstanding)?  By the time he gets to college, Facebook is not just going to be old, but is going to the platform he associates with a generation above him. 

Point #2, old habits die hard.  When an entire generation of kids grow up using a range of social media platforms on their mobile devices (rather than Facebook on a laptop or desktop), they already have multiple networks of friends that they are tied into and have been communicating with by the time they are high school- and college-age.  Why would they add another network like Facebook, when they have been getting along fine so far (there is a reason, but I will touch on that later)?  Think about why Google+ has never really taken off.  Start by reminding yourself that this is GOOGLE!!! (sorry for shouting).  They are a giant, and are slowly controlling the world, and create innovative products that (most) everyone loves because they are free and easy to use.  So why couldn’t they design a social network that can compete with Facebook?  If you are like me, you had a Facebook account first and slowly added as many “friends” as possible.  You have used Facebook to communicate with these friends, and things have basically gone just fine (full disclosure, I don’t really use Facebook much anymore).  Then Google+ comes along and says “hey, we’re here too!  Come join us!”, and the only question buzzing through your mind, which you can never really get past is, “Why?  I already have a Facebook account”.

That is the problem.  While I did create a Google+ account, and would argue if we were starting this whole social media thing from scratch we should all probably pick Google+ over Facebook, the platform is (IMHO) a bit of a wasteland.  Few of my Facebook friends are there, and those that are there rarely use it.  I exclusively use it to backup photos for free from my phone.  Thanks Google!

So to connect Google+ to the issue at hand, the reason Facebook seems destined to decrease in coolness and time-spent statistics for its youngest users in the coming years is because there are a multitude of other platforms stealing these users when they are young (kinda like cigarette companies do).  By the time these users get to college, their social media habits and networks have already been formed (they’re addicted).  It should be no wonder that the fastest growing demographic of Facebook users is individuals over 55.  More staggeringly, teens are actually leaving Facebook.  Like, millions of teens.  Like, over 3 million aged 13-17, and another 3 million aged 18-24, in the past few years. 

My guess is Facebook is not going to lose 80% of its user base anytime soon.  More importantly (if you are thinking about investments), Facebook is going to remain a very profitable company for a long, long time.  This is because no one can offer better or more accurate targeting of consumers on such a large scale.  So, while they seem to be out of the “cool” business, they are certainly in the “we know more about you than your mom does” business.  And knowing about what you like and don’t like means they can sell this information about you to advertisers.  Even for people who do not want a Facebook account, high school or college classes and projects sometimes make it necessary to join because students start study groups or club pages on Facebook and use it to communicate with their classmates.  Even if one does not like or want Facebook, it is difficult to make it through college without at least having an account – and that means Facebook knows who you are.

But this post isn’t about the profitability of social media platforms.  This is about what is next.  What is emerging.  And how to identify and understand these trends.  When a 12-year-old tells you about a cool new App that she and her friends love, you should not dismiss this information.  She is likely to be telling you the name of the next social media platform that everyone will be talking about and using in the next 3 years (i.e., Snapchat).  Maybe not (i.e., Vine), but she probably knows more than you do about the future of social media.  So get a chair, and listen up.

Dr. Greg Hoplamazian, @GregHoplamazian

Associate Professor of Communication, Master of Arts in Emerging Media

Loyola University Maryland