Michele Daoud is a Principal at Monk’s Hill Ventures and was previously a Director at Udemy, the largest global online education marketplace based in San Francisco.
The original motivation behind social media platforms was to address a basic human need: we’re social creatures and we long for connection, community, belonging. Social media’s simple goal was to create a new way for people to communicate, share, and form relationships. That simplicity faded as the world’s populations joined those networks, with all their complicated nuances and differences in tow.
For all the development and progress achieved by Facebook, the social media platform is now contending with major negative repercussions around the world. As social networks like Facebook and Instagram plowed new paths for networking and connecting, they simultaneously – likely unwittingly – seeded new ways to amplify disinformation, hatred, and exclusion on their applications.
Headlines today focus on the negative, but overall, social applications have delivered incredible benefits to users, opening up a whole world of communication we never dreamed possible. Society is now developing a better understanding of how our social media accounts impact our lives in the physical world, and startups have a new chance to disrupt the market and move beyond some of the mistakes that major social media platforms are dealing with today.
Can It Be Communication If There Is No Dialogue?
The root problem behind social media emerges when two-way conversations melt into a single, unquestioned stream of consciousness. Social influencers offer a new path to celebrity for content creators, but the relationship can turn parasitic with excessive social power, pushing followers to idolize individuals and lose themselves in influencers’ constant status updates, like overzealous worshippers of uncaring gods.
The lack of two-way communication also breeds echo chambers where individuals never consider alternative opinions, and in its worst form, extremism that sometimes devolves into radical ideology and destructive acts.
At the same time, social platforms have also allowed users to share their feelings and experiences, helping many to shed the sense of isolation that drives some to commit harmful acts.
As much as social media can isolate users, its potential to create previously nonexistent relationships – many of which then thrive offline – offsets some of the damage caused by online echo chambers. Social media can facilitate connections just outside of users’ reach: matching new mealtime companions via apps like Lunch Kaki and even adapting old-school dating markets to enable modern love. Major platforms like Alibaba have found new ways to bring goods to previously inaccessible populations, offering elderly shoppers on Taobao a chance to make purchases with help from family, via message connections. These solutions center on dialogue, and though their primary purposes may be based in generating profit or collecting data, developers have designed them with a mind toward beneficial social interaction.
Transforming Social Media Side Effects Into Motivation
Most people live heightened lives on their social media. Our most exciting experiences are documented and our mundane moments are discarded. Even if most people know their friends, family, and social influencers are just curating the finest images of their lives, they still fall into the trap of social comparison. Whole industries have blossomed around this social anxiety, where social influencers compete for brand representation gigs and followers vie for attention from the influencers.
While social networks may be inseparable from today’s culture of unhealthy comparing and competing, some apps have adapted this tendency for a more productive use.
Education technology has been taken advantage of social comparison as a motivating force. When their scores and performance aren’t constantly being compared in the classroom, even the most enthusiastic students lose some of their motivation to learn. Apps like Singapore’s Koobits and China’s Mint Reading reignite this flame by charting a user’s score and comparing it to their friends’ ranks on the platform.
Social comparison on Facebook and Instagram can leave users pining for a fantasy: perfect hair, perfect body, perfect life. But in its most basic form, educational progress can be charted and compared, and the right dose of social comparison can encourage users to build the habit of reading and studying.
Opportunities for Social Benefit
Social media will only become more interwoven into society over the coming years. Disruptive platforms like Facebook will continue to struggle with their platforms’ less desirable social impacts. But they face additional challenges by simply underestimating how much their applications would disrupt everyday communication, online and offline.
While these titans are tangled in the implications of their growth, startups have the opportunity to enter the market with a broader understanding of social apps. To start on the right path, founders can work to ensure their social platforms are accessible to a wide range of users. In a globalized world, accessibility is just another aspect of scalability, and the most innovative ideas will be able to adapt to the languages, cultures, habits, and contexts of a diverse group of users. At the same time, companies will not be able to fully predict all uses and implications of their social apps. Building a startup that can respond swiftly, thoughtfully, and effectively to conflicts that arise is crucial.
Even with complications that may emerge along the way, social media still holds a worthwhile goal: building new communities. As individuals, we seek belonging, and social media offers us powerful new opportunities to cultivate networks with others who share our interests and beliefs. The most powerful social platforms will enhance individuals’ connections to their communities. By thinking critically about the social impact of social networks, tomorrow’s startups will build thoughtful solutions to today’s social media pitfalls and bring their users authentic and lasting social connections.