How a Shifting Social Media Landscape Is rē•shaping Our Relationships

To ourselves, each other, and our world at large.

By: rē•spin
How a Shifting Social Media Landscape Is rē•shaping Our Relationships

When Facebook first launched in 2004, its purpose was simple yet revolutionary: It would be an online platform where college students could connect. This allowed them to remain close with former classmates and find new friends at their current schools. For the first time, it was possible to feel woven into the world wide web with others near and far.

Eventually, the social network expanded to let anyone—anywhere—do the same. Then Instagram launched in 2010 with a similar goal. The world again felt bigger yet more accessible than ever before. Today, these two platforms account for 73 percent of all social media usage. It’s not hyperbolic to say that, together, they’ve forever changed relationships with ourselves, each other, and the world around us. But at this point, it’s important to rē-think the role social media plays in helping us connect personally and professionally. Allowing us to build digital communities that rē-flect our interests and values is no longer the primary focus for these platforms.

Algorithms are augmenting our reality.

Authentic connection and sharing are two of the most nourishing experiences in human existence. Yet, if you still use your social media for this purpose, which 78 percent of people say they do, according to a new study from The New York Times, you may notice that it’s getting harder and harder to do either of these things these days—and that’s by design.

At this point, social media platforms are more concerned with keeping us scrolling than keeping us connected. To do this, they use algorithms to serve us content they believe we will engage with longest toward the top of our feeds. They deprioritize everything else, including posts from people we follow and want to see. Recently, investigative researchers found Facebook has used its algorithms to prioritize controversial, divisive content because it increases engagement. This is despite the serious damage it’s capable of doing to our mental and emotional well-being individually and as a society. Even if the content isn’t incendiary, these platforms still favor posts geared toward mindless scrolling rather than conscious consumption. And social media’s influence doesn’t end with what we see online.

Platforms are shaping the way content is produced as well. Companies like Facebook and Instagram are able to dictate what type of posts their algorithms surface and which they bury. This comes much to the frustrations of creators who rely on these platforms to connect with their communities.

Instagram’s most recent updates to its algorithms prioritize videos over pictures because they keep people on the platforms longer. This has forced creators to either fundamentally change the type of content they make (the platform started as a photo-sharing app, after all) or see their reach shrink even more. Only a fraction (some say 10 percent) of followers see any given post if you’re not optimizing them for the algorithms.

This may not matter if social media didn’t play such an outsized role in our lives. But seven in 10 Americans use it to connect. There are also currently over 200 million business accounts on Instagram alone. 60 percent of users say they use the app to discover new products. So the fact that platforms are rē-shaping our reality to such a degree—and not always in alignment with our values if they run congruent to their needs to generate ad revenue—makes it necessary to question whether what they’re mirroring back to us is accurate or warping our perspectives.

Virtual reality has the potential to disrupt the digital space.

Right now, the metaverse, which Facebook believes will be the future of digital connection, is far from mainstream. Only 12 percent of internet users polled this past spring said they were interested in it. But while it may still be years away from rē-placing social media sites like Facebook and Instagram in terms of popularity, it’s already rē-configuring everything from how we date to how we gather to how we do business. All thanks to virtual and augmented reality.

Last year, Sotheby’s launched a digital replica of its London art auction house in the metaverse to display and sell crypto art. Earlier this summer, Balenciaga, Prada, and Thom Browne launched digital clothing for avatars on Facebook and Instagram. This served to test what the future of fashion could look like on the platforms. Meanwhile, brands like Pacsun and Prada have opted to forgo real people as the faces of their upcoming social media campaigns in lieu of “virtual influencers.” Having a following may not be enough to earn income through brand partnerships in the not-so-distant future.

Are these early adopters of the metaverse and its technologies harbingers of what’s to come with social media? Someday soon, will we, or rather our avatars, meet up as a community in a virtual world of our own rendering? One that rē-flects our values and propagates our core pillars? Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. That’s the thing about shifting landscapes: You don’t know what the terrain will look like until the dust settles.

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