As the Harvard Business Review recently highlighted, online conversations now impact all facets of modern life, from relationships to policy decisions, and individual mobile phone use is higher than ever. What’s changing, however, is what consumers are seeking to get out of their time on social media platforms.
Traditional media platforms appear to be on borrowed time: with the first generation to grow up with “big social” having reached adulthood, a new white paper has shown that the pursuit of “likes” and “going viral” of traditional social media has an expiry date. Close to 40% of under 30s now use Facebook as a messenger service only, while almost half believe Instagram to be concerned with “presenting an image to the world that’s not real”.
Instead, today’s social media users—especially Millennials and Gen Zers are—increasingly looking for a different kind of social media experience, namely one that is safer, more private and more specifically tailored to their needs and interests. According to one pundit, new platforms are akin to “digital campfires” – essentially digital hangouts with a more exclusive, and therefore intimate, audience.
Some social media startups have secured a head start in trying to create these types of communities. France’s Yubo, for example, launched in 2015 with a view to helping users aged 13 to 25 find like-minded individuals, initiate one-on-one conversations, and join topical live streams via the Yubo app. “Yubo is a response to a fundamental need of Generation Z: socializing and creating friendships in the digital world in the exact same way as in real life,” Yubo CEO and co-founder Sacha Lazimi emphasized.
Indeed, the platform’s shift in focus away from “likes” and toward community building has both helped entice its 25 million users around the world and convinced investors. Last December, the start-up raked in $12.3 million in funding. Yubo has endeavoured to address another one of users’ growing demands: a social media platform which puts safety first.
The app deploys a mix of technology and education to curb problematic content. Yubo has developed its own algorithms to detect when users may be nude or under-dressed while livestreaming; where appropriate, the app is able to intervene live by killing the user stream and issuing warnings to offending users. “While we don’t automatically close their accounts, we give them some breathing space to think about what they’ve done,” explained user protection adviser to Yubo, Annie Mullins OBE. “We want to educate young people, not punish them.”
While Yubo is focused on younger users, a number of other social media platforms are banking on building and fostering communities focused on shared interests or hobbies, rather than shared illusions. One such emergent app, Capture, is working to carve out a niche for people wanting to share interesting elements of their everyday lives with relevant strangers without the pressure of mass public approval.
Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, the Capture app is designed to meet humans’ desire to share and discuss issues without the added pressure that comes with opening up to known social circles. “It’s not for your friends,” explains Capture co-founder and CEO Alexey Moiseenkov, “it is about small groups with the same goal, discussing the same experience, or something like that. It’s all about your everyday life.”
With information gleaned from users’ mobile hardware, location information, accelerometer (the measure of a phone’s angle) and camera, Capture makes context-specific chatroom recommendations for individual users. From pop culture to local events, users can find like-minded individuals on demand; future evolutions of the app could even be used to facilitate local responses to unfolding disasters.
At the same time, entrepreneur Chad Wittman is working on Persona— a more intimate, family-centred version of Facebook. As a father of two boys, Wittman found himself looking for a platform that would allow him to share the context and stories behind his video recordings and photos of his children. He was drawn to creating an online dinner table setting to facilitate group conversations—about the family unit, not just the child.
Ironically, even the industry titans are starting to take notice of consumers’ changing preferences. Tag groups have purportedly “taken over” Facebook, with users carving out unique online spaces to communicate in smaller groups that better fit their personalities. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has responded in kind, shifting company strategy to meet this need. “We’re focused on building the digital equivalent of the living room,” he wrote last year, “where you can interact in all the ways you’d want privately.”
Whether these initiatives from the old and established social networks will be having the same effect in enticing users to return or even attract new ones, is unclear. The fact remains that Facebook’s obvious attempt to catch up with the times feels rather stale, with the digital “living room” equivalent coming off as nothing more than a hasty, reactionary add on, rather than a real innovation.
What’s clear is that apps like Yubo, Capture and Persona represent a changing of the guards. Social media platforms are evolving from the concept where the individual is subsumed into a mass of indistinct users to where the individual seeks out genuine online connections and communities of common interest.
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