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Turmoil on social media sites is driving users to smaller, more private alternatives

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

There has been a lot of upheaval in the social media industry in 2022. Beyond the chaos at Twitter under Elon Musk, Facebook is trying to pivot to the metaverse and economic pressures are squeezing Silicon Valley. So let's talk about all this with NPR's Shannon Bond. Hi, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Shannon, hit rewind for us. What were the big moments of this past year?

BOND: Yeah, I think a lot of these big social networks started off the year, you know, attempting these kind of fresh starts. You know, Facebook spent very heavily betting on this immersive virtual metaverse that it's trying to create. At Twitter, there was already a new CEO in place even before Elon Musk made this surprise bid for the company. But, you know, almost right away, things got off track. There were ad revenue shortfalls across the sector. Facebook lost users for the first time. You know, companies were laying off thousands of workers, and many social media companies are feeling this pressure from TikTok, the very popular Chinese-owned short video app that's really redefining social media. Instead of connecting with friends, it's all about seeing the most engaging videos that anybody on the platform has posted.

ESTRIN: So if TikTok is redefining social media, how are American social media companies responding?

BOND: Well, platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, they are scrambling to copy some of these features on TikTok. You know, we're seeing more short videos in your feed. You might be seeing more videos recommended from people you don't know, you don't follow. And that's a big change. I spoke with Michael Sayman, who's an app developer who's worked at Facebook, Google and Twitter.

MICHAEL SAYMAN: I think really, the moneymakers in social media and, really, the profit for these companies is not any more in the business of, like, friends sharing.

BOND: He says these apps are becoming more like TV networks, right? There's a tiny fraction of creators who are making almost all the content.

ESTRIN: Yeah, I have noticed this on my own Facebook and Instagram. You know, suddenly these videos pop up from people I do not follow. I guess at first, I was annoyed by it, and now I have to admit I find myself clicking on these mindlessly, and there they are. What do people feel about these changes?

BOND: It's pushing a lot of users to look for alternative ways to, you know, keep up with those friends that they might not be seeing as many posts from, you know? So they're turning to messaging services like WhatsApp and Discord, apps like BeReal, where users post one unedited photo every day that can't be liked or shared. And we've also seen this disillusionment with legacy social sites has inspired this new crop of apps by and for conservatives, right? They feel their views are muzzled by Silicon Valley. And this year, we saw that partisan fracturing extend to Twitter, right? Elon Musk is courting right-wing users. He's alienating advertisers, employees and regulators.

ESTRIN: Well, there has been a lot of focus in recent years on the harms of social media. So what's the effect of all these new changes in the social media landscape?

BOND: Well, I think this fragmentation of the public conversation is making life more complicated - right? - both for threat actors who are trying to spread propaganda and amplify polarization across platforms and for people trying to investigate those threat actors, whether they're journalists or researchers or even the companies themselves.

ESTRIN: So what are you looking for in the new year?

BOND: Well, you know, I think there's going to be even more fragmentation. Twitter is in turmoil. People are looking for apps to replace it, and Elon Musk has said he'll step down as CEO, though we don't have any sense of the timing there. You know, TikTok is under national security scrutiny and facing bans from state and the federal government. But even more than that, I think there's this broader evolution in how people think about sharing. They're sort of turning to these more private places, and it suggests to me that the next era of social media will be defined not by one big mega-company where you're sharing to billions of people, but by making connections and sharing content scattered across many different apps.

ESTRIN: NPR's Shannon Bond. Thank you.

BOND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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