DANIEL VAUGHAN: The 2020s: The decade social media hegemony breaks

We haven’t just come up against the end of another year; we’re entering a new decade. (Yes, I know some people consider the start of the decade to be on a year ending in “-1” — and not “-0” — but I don’t care.) Most pieces written so far are retrospective, looking back, trying to make sense of the previous decade and detect any themes.

As for myself? I’m looking to the future. What changes will happen in the 2020s, when we hit the quarter-century mark for the 21st century? Where are we headed?

To me, one of the defining characteristics of the last decade was how social media came to dominate the media landscape in unprecedented ways. In particular, Facebook dominated social networking, nearly blotting out the sun for any other social media company.

Facebook’s dominance was as thorough as it was peculiar. If you’re a millennial of a certain age, like me, you grew up on an internet without Facebook, where many other websites dominated. We didn’t know it at the time, but these were early precursors to the social media companies we all use today.

We flitted from one website to the next. There were messaging platforms, blogging and journaling sites, message boards, and new pre-social media companies like Friendster. (I could name-drop many others, but I don’t feel like aging myself even more.)

Depending on your friend circle, everyone used a different site. Then the first big one arrived: Myspace (which is technically still running). From 2005–2008, Myspace was the largest social media network, where people were connecting with friends, personalizing unique profiles, and sharing music.

Again though, if you hit college around that time — as I did, you know that Myspace’s reign was far shorter; it dominated from 2005–2006, and then, Facebook took over entirely on college campuses.

This history is all pre-2010s because once we hit that decade, Facebook had all but wiped out its competition. There was a brief moment in time when people expected a new rival, Google Plus, to knock Facebook off its pedestal. But no one used Google Plus.

Even then, no one liked all the changes Facebook was making, but it was the only platform anyone used. And for better or worse, Facebook has dominated the entire decade, by either growing, buying rivals like Instagram, or stealing features from newcomers like Snapchat.

I go through that brief history to highlight something that I think is interesting about the 21st century thus far: if you go back and read science fiction — some of it even from the 1990s — social media is an invention that futurists missed. Our futurists saw things like flying cars, handheld computers, and other technological feats, but not social networks that connect us all in ways we’ve never had in human history.

I saw someone comment recently that Facebook and social media have all but killed the need for the high school reunion. Why bother going back? You already know how everyone is doing if you’re connected — and if you’re not connected, there’s probably a reason for that. That’s especially true if everyone is on the same platform — i.e., Facebook.

But will the Facebook dominance, their social media hegemony, last throughout the 2020s?

I’m skeptical.

For one, the reason everyone my age joined Facebook when we did was that it was the platform that was “cool” — everyone was on it, everyone used it, and if you wanted to stay connected with friends, it’s been all but required. But that’s not true anymore, especially for kids after millennials: Generation Z and so on. You may have a Facebook profile just to say you have one, but all the new and exciting things are happening elsewhere, on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.

Facebook will adapt to this reality, of course. But if Facebook is an “uncool” place, and all your friends are using other websites and services, why bother making it a part of your life?

That’s where my prediction for the decade comes in. While it’s natural to think that dominant companies will remain dominant, I tend to believe that won’t happen with Facebook. In the next decade, Facebook faces the prospect of anti-trust lawsuits, which would break their hold over brands like Instagram and WhatsApp, while also dealing with decreased interest from new generations.

If Facebook breaks, another dominant player could show up. But I think things will return to a pre-Facebook status: lots of players, but no one dominant company. We’ve seen similar dynamics in industries like food delivery, where competition is fierce, and no one can grab an edge.

Social media as connective tissue for cultural life isn’t going anywhere, but the companies driving those changes will shift in the next decade. And I think Facebook will finally face its reckoning. Mark Zuckerberg must deal with the prospect of becoming the next Tom on Myspace.

Frankly, I see this as a proper development over the next decade. John Podhoretz, writing about why he quit Twitter and its toxic effect on his life, said this week:

…Twitter has an oversoul now, and the oversoul is poisonous. It rewards bad rhetorical behavior, it privileges outrage of any sort over reason of all sorts, and it encourages us to misunderstand each other. It’s the devil on our shoulder.

Too many other social media sites have had similar impacts on the world. But I can’t tell if these apps have that direct impact on people, or if they’re merely revealing human nature in ways we’ve never seen.

I don’t know the answer. But one thing is clear: breaking up the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram hegemony is a good thing. It would be helpful for these companies to have a shorter shelf life. When kids jump to new services, it reduces the cultural impact of older companies.

Let’s hope the 2020s show us a better version of social media than what we’ve had this decade. Bring on new social media companies and less hegemonic power from the Facebooks of the world.