[Robert J. Fouser] Future direction of social media

By Robert J. Fouser
  • Published : Jul 31, 2018 - 17:25
  • Updated : Jul 31, 2018 - 17:25

This summer, I decided to cut back on my use of social media. I limit my use to a few 10-minute checks a day. That gives me time to wish people happy birthday and interact with posts about important life events. It leaves little time for my own posts and photos. The break has helped me focus on people in the real world and it has given me a chance to think about the meaning of social media at the end of the second decade of the 21st century.

Since the rise of mass consumption in the mid-20th century, every decade has been defined by technologies that diffuse rapidly and uproot existing ways of life. In the 1920s, and again in the 1950s, the rapid diffusion of the automobile in North America and the spread of suburbs profoundly changed how people lived. In the 1930s, the rapid diffusion of the radio gave people access to real-time news for the first time in history. In the 1950s, the rapid diffusion of the stove, the refrigerator, and clothes washer changed housework forever, and the rapid diffusion of the TV changed how people consume images and information.

In recent years, information technology has dominated the waves of change. The 1980s saw the rapid diffusion of personal computers. The internet and web dominated the 1990s. The 2000s saw the rapid diffusion of blogs and digital cameras, which paved the way for the boom in smart phones and social media in the 2010s.

Each new technology eventually lost its buzz as it became mainstream. Some became, like the refrigerator and telephone (and cellphone), necessities that we barely think about; others, like the radio and film camera, faded as they were superseded by new technology. New technologies will appear in the 2020s, creating yet more change and making some existing technologies obsolete.

So what next for social media? The rapid spread of the smartphone and related technologies fueled the social media boom. Communication moved beyond text to include a plethora of images, both still and moving. It was exciting and new and, most important, fun.

But then things changed. Social media companies grew into large corporations and began to change the sites to increase revenue. The platforms lost their sense of excitement as algorithms were tweaked to target advertisements to user interests. Concerns about privacy grew as algorithms kept collecting more information on users. Worries about the psychological effects of social media on well-being grew as it has become central to how people communicate. For many users, using large social media platforms has simply become unpleasant.

As concerns and woes piled up, the role of social media in affecting elections came under scrutiny, first in Korea and then in the US. In both cases, social media were used to distribute rumors and “fake news” about candidates, helping former President Park Geun-hye win in 2012 and US President Donald Trump win in 2016. These accusations hurt the image of social media and raised questions about social responsibility.

“In a tweet, President Trump said” has become commonplace in newspaper articles. Trump’s aggressive use of Twitter has created a government-by-Twitter situation in the US that causes unease among many Americans. Populist politicians in other countries have adopted similar social media strategies to stir up support for their causes.

All of this poses a problem for the viability of large social media companies. Facebook’s stock lost 20 percent in a day last week after the company reported declines in users and revenue. Wall Street is raising questions about the future profitability of the company because it has seen many companies die on the vine as trends change and consumers go elsewhere. It also knows that new companies will rise to fill the void left by companies that do not adapt to new conditions.

As problems pile up, the large social media companies either adapt or fail. To adapt, they need to create an experience that users like and feel comfortable with. They also need to adapt to technological change instead of focusing on milking the existing platform for advertising profits.

Social media platforms are here to stay, but they will change with technology and consumer tastes. New platforms will appear, and consumers will gravitate to the platforms they feel most comfortable using. As an early adopter and leading developer of IT, Korea is fertile ground for new social media companies. It is, after all, home to Cyworld, the first social media platform in the world to achieve mass diffusion in its market. Let the shake out begin.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com. -- Ed.