Behind closed doors: The new social media

“What we’re seeing is a movement away from public or semi-public social platforms to platforms that are much more closed and private.”

2016 will be the year that news organizations realize that messaging and chat apps are not just another channel to leverage, but are representative of a significant change in what “social media” is. This is a change that will create dramatic challenges to the distribution strategies and business models that have been built upon an understanding of social media that no longer holds. This may be a year where we learn that, once again, the sands of the Internet have shifted beneath our feet.

alexis-lloyd-matt-boggieBy now, everyone is at least peripherally aware of the recent rise of messaging apps, most notably Snapchat, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and Slack (more on what ties these all together in a moment). Thus far, they’ve been treated as peripheral to the core social media strategies for news organizations, which are largely built around Facebook and Twitter. The assumption is that these platforms (or ones like them) will remain dominant — that we can depend on the News Feed to endure.

But what if that’s incorrect? What if the “social stream” typified by Facebook and Twitter is actually in decline as a primary mode of engagement and discovery, like the newspaper or the homepage before it? Inklings of Twitter’s decline are starting to permeate public conversation, especially with the revelation that the platform has failed to sign up any new users in the U.S. in 2015. But those of us in the media may be the least able to see Twitter’s fall, as the service’s affordance for broadcasting to large audiences appeals greatly to the needs and sensibilities of journalists.

While discussions of Twitter’s struggles may have started to emerge, the Facebook News Feed is still assumed to be the dependable monolith in the world of social media. But what do we see when we actually look at what Facebook has been doing over the past year? Their most visible efforts seem to be dedicated to building out features in Messenger, like hooks for other applications to build services into the chat layer, as well as the (still in closed beta) personal assistant Facebook M. The other recent Facebook initiative is Notify, yet another service that sits apart from the main Facebook app and focuses on notifications and alerting. All the while, the News Feed hasn’t seen much in the way of development, other than an increasing focus on video. The company itself has stated that Facebook will eventually be mostly video and VR, evolving to become something more like a competitor for YouTube or other video platforms.

Taking all of these signals together, it seems more than likely that the News Feed as we currently know it will cease to exist, or at least cease to have the relevance it has now, before very long.

The decline of social platforms on which news organizations have built business strategies, combined with an ascendence of more chat-like platforms, promises to be a significant change. What we’re seeing is a movement away from public or semi-public social platforms to platforms that are much more closed and private. There seems to be a desire, especially amongst younger cohorts, to communicate in much more carefully protected and curated social spaces.

These new entrants create a whole host of new questions, challenges, and (hopefully) opportunities for news and journalism. The apps mentioned above — Snapchat, WeChat, Slack, and Messenger — are by no means interchangeable. They differ in contexts, communities, media types, and more. But what they have in common is that they’re all based on a one-to-one or one-to-few communication paradigm — a paradigm that feels much less native to publishing than the one-to-many contexts of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and the like. These platforms privilege conversation over broadcasting, communication over publishing. What does journalism look like in a conversational space? What do we offer as news publishers that might feel native to these kinds of environments?

Looking forward, there are likely to be two outcomes. As more public, broadcast-oriented platforms decline, messaging platforms may expand to fill the need for content sharing and discovery, either by adding new feature sets or by adapting to behaviors that emerge from both users and publishers. In this case, journalism could evolve to take advantage of the affordances of the new spaces readers inhabit, becoming more conversational and de-emphasizing static articles and documents. This of course brings up many questions about business models, authorship, accountability, archives, and more.

Alternately, these messaging spaces may not be a fertile environment for news and content discovery at all. The role of journalism in fostering civic awareness and public dialogue may be inherently at odds with the more private nature of interaction on these platforms. In this case, there will be a needs gap: an opportunity for new kinds of platforms to emerge that are designed to create deep experiences around the publishing, curation, sharing, and discovery of content. If so, there will be an opportunity to develop environments that are created to explicitly support the needs of the news industry, perhaps even built by the news industry itself, with better discovery experiences for readers and better monetization mechanisms for publishers.

No matter what happens, however, it’s likely that the strategies, editorial sensibilities, and analytics that have been developed for the current social media environment may very soon fail to bring new readers and build new relationships. The lesson the Internet teaches us again and again is that everything changes. The biggest mistake a publisher can make is to assume their current approach will hold, when in fact we all must constantly experiment and adapt to an ever-shifting landscape.

Alexis Lloyd and Matt Boggie are creative director and executive director, respectively, of The New York Times R&D Lab.