As shocking as it may sound, social media is no longer new. The last 20 plus years have delivered an entire industry that fundamentally changed how we connect and interact with one another.
We often hear about which platform is outperforming for each audience. We’re told how their usage ebbs and flows depending on the latest trends. We discuss how the rise of new players threatens the very existence of once cemented juggernauts. But these are individualistic views centered on one or two platforms. They lack a holistic view of how we’ve adapted to use social media over time.
Today we’re taking a step back to evaluate how we interact with social media. Not just how we use it now, but how our interactions on these platforms have changed since their inception. Here are four ways that our use of social media has changed over time.
Online Identities Separated from Fan Culture
The very first platforms established the need to craft an online identity. We began meeting new people in entirely digital spaces, stressing the need to introduce ourselves. We did this through the things we like. Think your favourite songs reflected on MSN Messenger, or showcasing your top 8 friends on MySpace. On Facebook and Twitter, we followed brand pages and celebrities. We proudly declared our favourite things for others to best understand who we are.
Somewhere along the journey we collectively stopped choosing to be outward fans. Perhaps better stated, we chose to stop screaming about our likes on our profiles. The “cool factor” simply wasn’t there anymore. As a result, brands have seen a significant decline of followers of brand pages on particular platforms. This concept can be difficult for marketers to grasp. Why aren’t more people engaging with our posts? It’s probably not you, it’s us.
While many people still choose to follow brands online, the purpose of the relationship has shifted. Instead of representing oneself, we now follow out of a desire for information. Whether to learn about new products, or just to receive discounts, we now seek to get something in return from these brands. The power has absolutely shifted from the brands to individuals. In short, they need us more than we need them.
Increased Awareness of Privacy
Another big shift has been our awareness of privacy. This is both on an individual level, as well as a policy one. As people became more conscious of the power of their data, government regulations have followed suit. As a result, we’ve been granted tools to limit when and where platforms collect our data, including personally identifiable information.
With regards to habits, people are far less likely to share details about themselves online, unless the source is highly trusted. Even then, users are more critical of the information requested of them. We’ve also seen an increase in users moving to closed networks. Some choose to limit visibility of content through private accounts, or prefer to post short-term, expiring content such as stories and snapchats.
This has also decreased marketers ability to target and track users, forcing a change in content algorithms themselves. Platforms have also moved to showcase more intentionally open creator accounts than content from your closer contacts, all tied to privacy.
Platforms have Become Search Engines
In more recent times, younger generations have found new uses for social media. Gen Z have begun to think of social media sites as search engines and entertainment more than social networks. While Facebook, Myspace, and MSN Messenger were all seen as places to connect with friends, platforms like Tiktok, Youtube, and Instagram are archives of digestible content for eager researchers.
What is the reason for this shift? To some extent it’s because these platforms have been viewed with a higher degree of authenticity or trust. A 2022 study conducted by BBC Education found that “nearly half people between the ages of 11 and 16 tend to believe the news they see on social media – often regardless of the source.” On a functional level, both algorithms and the adoption of hashtags have made it easier to navigate online content.
While older generations might turn to traditional sources of information, savvy youth are far more likely to research via their preferred social platform. Whether researching restaurants for a vacation or applying to jobs, the first place they’re going to check is social media.
More Decentralised Than Ever
The last shift in social media behaviours relates to choice. When the first platforms first launched our options were limited, with just a few spaces to interact. This aligned the original goal of the internet; one centralised experience where all participants are equal. Naturally as industries expanded, so too did our options.
Throughout the years both competition and individuals preferences have created disparate gaps. Each platform now has a unique central purpose and an audience to go with it. Snapchat is for speaking privately with friends, Instagram is about sharing perfected moments, Youtube is for entertainment.
They also have inherently different audiences. Pinterest’s audience leans female, Tiktok is associated with youth, left and right winged opponents exist on separate platforms altogether.
As annoying as it’s become to reach a mass audience, this is the way we like it. We’ve created echo chambers of likeminded people who agree with us resulting in less friction online. In fact, when mass adoption does occur, the social media site is no longer deemed “cool.” Just ask teenagers how they feel when their parents sign up to their preferred platform.
This separation of public will only continue as platforms innovate. We’ll never go back to one online space, only build further ways to segment ourselves based on preference.
How Social Media Use Has Changed Over Time
There you have it. Four ways that our use of social media has changed over time.
It’s tempting to say we’ve settled into these habits, however humans continually evolve. After a few years it’s a near guarantee that we’ll find more uses for these platforms, and even new sites to solve different needs. It’s only human nature, reflected online.