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Tyler Cowen: Welcome to the era of antisocial media

A change in how people use and consume social media was bound to happen, but what happens next is the question.

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Is social media past its prime?
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Have we reached peak social media?

Many of the United States' leading social media companies, such as Snap, Twitter and Pinterest, are now worth less than they were the day they went public. Shares of Meta (formerly Facebook) now trade at less than half of their all-time high. The company has announced it is changing its news feed to emphasize content from its “discovery engine” instead of from friends and family. Instagram, a Meta subsidiary, has announced a similar change, to much criticism.

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The decline in market value may prove temporary, and there is a good chance the sector will make a comeback through new companies and new products. Still, the notion that social media is past its prime is no longer unthinkable. What would a future with less social media look like?

For me, one of the most fundamental questions about human nature right now is just how much people enjoy exhibiting their lives to a broader public, whether through words, photos or videos. I am reminded of the decline of blogging, from its golden age (roughly 2001 to 2012) to now. There are still many good blogs, but they don’t have the broad cultural relevance that Andrew Sullivan, Daily Kos or Instapundit had in their heyday.

Why did such blogging fade? I can think of at least three reasons. First, many of the people who produce content preferred writing for more narrow or more private audiences, and did so once Facebook became more popular. Second, YouTube became more popular, and many of the people who consume content prefer videos to blogs. Finally, the rise of Twitter showed that short bits are often more fun to read than turgid blog posts.

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Set this last reason aside, because the future of Twitter at the moment is not obviously bright, as the company is caught between a buyer who seems to no longer want it and a current management team that does not run it very well. I expect Twitter to continue (and I enjoy it greatly myself), but it is not the future of social media.

If I consider my own social media use, it is WhatsApp (also owned by Meta) that is steadily on the rise, which is consistent with the trend toward private and small-group messaging.

So is writing for a private, selected audience poised to eclipse writing for a broader public on social media? What would more private messaging, more texting and more locked social media accounts mean for public discourse?

Public intellectuals might still write on open social media, but the sector as a whole would shift toward more personal and intimate forms of communication. Again, this is not a prediction. But is it such an implausible vision of the future?

One of the more robust forms of social media is online dating, though these companies do not have the largest valuations. The percentage of couples who have met online continues to rise, and that trend is unlikely to reverse anytime soon. But online dating may not be as “social” as other forms of social media: People view some profiles and then switch fairly rapidly to private communications.

Private communications would seem to solve many of the problems cited by critics of social media. Social media wouldn’t corrupt so much public discourse because there would less public discourse to corrupt. And criticizing the new manifestations of these (formerly?) social media platforms would be akin to criticizing communication itself.

Video, too, might continue its rise. Even as many U.S. social media companies decline in value, TikTok and its short videos have been the big winner over the last few years. Regardless of whether the company keeps its current market lead, it is easy to imagine that, more and more, video will displace text. Even on airplanes with buggy seatback screens, I have noticed, people seem to prefer watching something to reading a book.

In this hypothetical future, social media may seem a lot more like old-fashioned gossip. Instead of whispering in somebody’s ear, or picking up the telephone, people would simply click on their favorite messaging service. They might give the “scoop” privately and then refer to it obliquely in public. Or, more directly, people would just use social media to talk about each other instead of debating the issues of the day. A lot of video is a mix of talk and a kind of “show and tell.” On TikTok, for example, props and pantomime are popular on many channels.

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I have mixed feelings about this potential rise of gossip at the expense of the social side of social media. Over the last decade, hundreds of articles have been published about how social media will bring about the death of democracy and ruin the lives of teenage girls. That now seems unlikely: Valid or not, such concerns may turn out to be obsolete.

The new villain might well be gossip — magnified by the power of instantaneous communications. In many ways, the problems of the post-social media world may mirror those of the pre-social media world. So much for progress.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. He is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.”

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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