What to make of 2019? A turbulent period in politics globally and the year when climate change was thrust into the spotlight. It has also been a significant turning point in social media’s life cycle. Not quite the year that social grew up, but perhaps when the wild west became a little less wild.
This has been a long time coming and the catalysts are countless. Growing concerns about data privacy and platforms’ inaction (or worse) in relation to it; increasing awareness of bad influencer behaviour; the role of social media in election fraud; a decline in trust across the industry.
As a result, Facebook – the figurehead of social platforms – faces regulatory threats from around the world, whether that’s from politicians such as Elizabeth Warren or with initiatives such as the UK online harms report. This increased awareness and pressure have resulted in platforms self-regulating, as well as people taking it upon themselves to change the way they use social media – a behaviour we covered in detail in our 2020 Think Forward Report.
One very topical example of this in action is Instagram’s "hidden likes" test that, as of last week, rolled out to a group of global users. This is a platform-driven example of "social self-care", but one that stems from increasing community pressure for social platforms to offer healthier online spaces. A digital detox is one thing, but very few of us are actually willing to go without our trusty tech long term – instead, the solution is to rebalance our digital lives.
As this behaviour continues, we’re seeing it play out in a number of ways. People are seeking out online optimism in social spaces, sharing and engaging with more educational and wholesome social content. Platforms such as Good Reads and Strider have both seen their membership grow this year. Meme accounts dedicated to positive, heartwarming news have seen increasing subscriptions.
Brands can tap into this. It could be about creating and fostering a culture rooted firmly in kindness, producing content that supports emotional health or encouraging people into healthier habits. This Father’s Day, for example, we worked with Vodafone on a "#ScreenFreeFathersDay" campaign to encourage dads to put their phones down to better connect with their kids IRL.
With the pressure from social communities building and platforms scrambling to present themselves as a healthier place to spend time, it’s only a matter of time before regulation and government intervention catch up with the zeitgeist. Brands will benefit from staying ahead of the game.
Another significant shift in 2019 has been increased awareness of content ownership and the concept of intellectual property online – something that has been close to non-existent on social media. Up until now, content has generally been stolen and rehashed without paying any mind to its creator. In 2019, this started to change – the more value that is placed on digital content, the more communities are increasingly fighting to claim back ownership of it.
Back in February, T-Mobile’s Super Bowl ad featured a viral tweet from an uncredited creator and the social media community was furious. Although it soon became clear that the creator had been paid and signed off the tweet’s use, the passionate reaction will be a stark warning sign to any brands looking to use content without a very transparent system of credit. People are now even willing to pay for content from their favorite creators, through platforms such as Patreon, which claims it will pay out $1bn to creators in 2019.
For brands, the lesson here is that just because something can be easily plucked from the internet, it doesn't mean it should be. And, in fact, there’s a lot of value that can be gained from working with creators, rather than "using" them. It’s influencer marketing 101 – if your brand has affinity with a creator, more can be gained from collaboration than dictation. Choosing profit over community will seriously undermine the perception of any brand.
These changes are just part of the wider evolution of the social media landscape but, make no mistake, they are significant and they’re happening now. Law and regulation are coming to the internet and it’s time for everyone to walk the line.