The 3rd Era of Social Is Coming. Are You Ready?
Earlier this summer, the future of social media became much clearer.
On June 30, Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, posted a video to Twitter that included a bold statement about Instagram’s priorities moving forward: It was “no longer a photo-sharing app.”
Mosseri explained that people came to Instagram to be entertained by video, so it was time for the company to fully embrace that—especially considering the competition the app was facing from other social apps. He also said users should expect to see more algorithmically recommended vertical videos, from people and topics they don’t follow, over the next 6-12 months.
If that sounds a lot like TikTok … that’s because it is. Or as the Verge put it: “Instagram is focusing on becoming TikTok.”
And if there was any doubt that was true, it was erased for me on Monday when Wired published an expose about Facebook’s obsession over turning Instagram—its most prized subsidiary—into a TikTok clone.
“Instagram is focusing on becoming TikTok.”
As a result, it looks like we’re barreling towards a new era of social media. But to really understand what the next era of social media will look like, we first need to understand how we got here.
The First Era of Social: The News Feed
Internet OGs will argue that social media started with Friendster or Myspace. But while my high school punk band’s very active Myspace page will tell you that’s technically true, social media didn’t really take off on a broad cultural level until September 2006.
Two very important things happened that month. First, Facebook announced you’d no longer need a college email address to join the platform. Second, Facebook introduced the News Feed.
It’s hard to remember Facebook before the News Feed, but it was chaotic. You had to manually navigate to individual profiles to find new updates. It was basically a directory. Group pages were the only way around this because everyone could post on the same “wall.” My “Sarah Lawrence College Class of 2010!!!” group, for instance, was filled with thirsty art school nerds trying to prearrange their orientation-week hookups and maybe also find a roommate who was also a Capricorn.
It’s hard to remember Facebook before the News Feed, but it was chaotic.
The News Feed made Facebook an actual social network. In turn, the News Feed became synonymous with social media. Twitter took off at SXSW in 2007 as literally just a feed of updates. Myspace—still then the world’s largest social network—hastily launched a feed in November 2007 to keep up with Facebook. (Narrator: They would not.) LinkedIn launched a feed to become the social network for your weird work persona. Instagram launched as a feed of square photos overlayed with lo-fi or sepia filters.
The News Feed era lasted a decade, and for a few years, it was kind of dope if you worked in digital media or marketing. (Until, you know, the journalism world started burning.) Twitter’s feed was chronological, so you could tweet out a ton of links to content and get consistent clicks from your followers. Facebook’s algorithm was incredibly friendly to “link posts” that sent users to news or blog articles. For a long stretch of 2015-2016, Facebook was sending more people to publisher sites than Google. Sure, publishers didn’t really know how to monetize those readers, but if your job was to build an audience, the News Feed era made that easier.
Though feeds still live on today, they gradually became less important as a new type of social content took over.
The Second Era of Social: Stories
In October 2013, a hot social media startup, started by a trio of Stanford students, released a feature that would alter the course of social media: Stories.
Stories let Snapchat users post a series of snaps that would last for 24 hours, and it was an immediate hit. Stories made it much easier to … well, tell stories. Instead of just sharing an ephemeral moment, users could string their snaps into a narrative.
This wasn’t just big for amateur content creators; it also allowed media companies to take full advantage of the platform. With the launch of Discover—a hub of stories from major media partners like ESPN, National Geographic, and Vice—Snapchat became a major media destination.
The Stories era didn’t supplant the News Feed era of social, however, until 2016, when Instagram straight-up copied Snapchat with the launch of Instagram stories. I wrote at the time that “Instagram copying Snapchat is about one thing: insecurity.” I was right about that—as well as my prediction that it’d be appealing to brands and teens alike—but I had no idea how popular the move would be. It was a hit and slowed Snapchat’s growth by 82 percent.
As with the News Feed, every other major social network followed suit. First Facebook. Then Twitter. Then LinkedIn (although Stories were so absurd on LinkedIn that the company is shutting it down by the end of this month).
You may be sensing a pattern here. Which brings us back to the third era of social.
The Third Era of Social: The Video Feed
TikTok’s explosive growth was unlike anything we’ve seen. It launched in the U.S. in September 2017. A year later, it was #1 in the app store. By early 2019, it had reached a billion users.
TikTok’s genius came from being:
- The best tool we’ve ever had for creating and editing short-form video on your phone.
- The most addictive way to consume video on your phone.
TikTok’s success has often been attributed to its algorithm, which is very good at predicting the type of video you’ll like. But TikTok is also so successful because it plays on the same part of our brain that makes gambling so addictive. You won’t love every video, but you’ll like a lot of them. When that happens, your brain gets a sweet hit of dopamine and wants to keep scrolling.
“In psychological terms [it’s] called random reinforcement,” Dr. Julia Albright told Forbes. “It means sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And that’s how these platforms are designed … they’re exactly like a slot machine.”
Of course, social networks have been playing on this part of our brain for a long time. This is what made the News Feed so successful in the first place. TikTok is tailor-made to deliver the type of highly relatable and novel video content that neuroscience has shown our brains crave.
This is why Instagram copied TikTok with its Reels feature last August, and why it’s planning to make a video feed the app’s central experience in the future.
I think we all know where this is going. Within the next few years, we’ll have Tik-Tok-style video feeds on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, whether they make sense or not.
I’m skeptical on whether this kind of feed will work outside of TikTok or Instagram—Video Feeds would likely be as out of place on LinkedIn as Stories were—but it doesn’t really matter. Every social network (included Reels) is already flooded with TikTok videos that people repost. TikTok’s brilliance is that being such an incredible video creation tool allows it to penetrate other networks and spread.
For those of us in media and marketing, that means we can’t afford to ignore TikTok any longer. People will only spend more time watching vertical video streams, and they’ll be drawn to it in other environments. Creating TikTok-style video will just be table-stakes when it comes to generating organic engagement and effective social advertising.
No one is exempt from getting in on the action. As my colleague Jolie Giacona wrote in her piece about how B2B brands can use TikTok without ruining it, there are far more possibilities to TikTok than just dance memes and the crate challenge. Educational content is already huge. So is funny, relatable content that makes your audience go, “Damn, yeah, that’s me.”
Those of us in media and marketing can’t afford to ignore TikTok any longer.
Does this mean we should throw our entire content strategy out the window and go all in on TikTok? Hell no. It’s still only one piece of the pie. As our research showed earlier this year, people will continue to consume content in an array of different formats—from blog posts to YouTube to podcasts to good old-fashioned memes.
But it does mean that we owe it to ourselves to experiment—to ditch the mindset that we can’t use TikTok because we were born before 1995. The third era of social is on its way. Do you really want to be the person who didn’t see it coming?Image by Magnilion