The Changing Faces of Social Media Applications
Social Media has become such a mainstay in our lives and a colloquial term, such that all of us know of it, but still do not know it, understand it truly or the true essence of it. Just like any curious kid would break down a toy in order to satiate his/her curiosity of what lies within, similarly, ‘social media’ comprises of ‘social’, which refers to a society or organization and ‘media’, which refers to the means of mass broadcasting through various mediums.
Taking it from the origin or purpose behind it, social media is any digital tool or interface that allows users (more recently & popularly called – connections, friends, followers, tweeps and more, based on the medium in consideration) to create and/or share content with familiar or unfamiliar people or the general public at large in the form of information, ideas, messages and other content and thereby create communities, groups, followers and possibly even movements, while redistributing the power to do so from just a select few to absolutely everyone.
Empirically however, the intention and force behind this revolutionary change, arguably this biggest and most significant in the history of our species has been diluted and replaced by or made synonymous by the actual applications, websites or portals in question, so much so that it has slid into our vocabulary as if it was its original nomenclature. Additionally, a large part of the usage involves putting out a fake, illusionary reality to the world, far from reality, to give a feeling of happiness when there is a lack of it or extreme sadness over trivial matters. Today, as we speak, the count of the platforms, or different applications has gone beyond what can be effectively tracked & monitored and continues to rise with time, with rise in number of developers, with new functionalities being added in an ever evolving fashion with upgrades, mergers & acquisitions of smaller promising players by larger sharks or even reasonably good rip-offs that cater better to their local area of influence.
With these developments it is impossible even for the larger, far more established players to offer a vanilla service and not evolve. In fact, not just the service providers, but even the users have evolved over the last two decades, with greater access, better education, training and thereby not just demand constantly improving products and services, stronger infrastructures, better interfaces, but hold these platforms accountable for lapses, outages, irresponsible tackling of issues and other errors. This exposure, freedom of access and unrestricted usage has changed the face of several social media applications, moulded by newer offerings, changing patterns of usage and creativity of the target and non-target user bases. To further showcase what I intend to lay out from my observations, I present 5 of the numerous apps that have become part of our daily routine, that have radically changed forms, for better or worse.
To keep the discussion far reaching and bolster thinking in this direction to the numerous other apps that haven’t been covered, but form part of your life, I have selected one of each type, covering – Video/Streaming, Expression in words, Image sharing, Employment Portal, Instant Messaging and a Multi-feature offering platform.
Starting with one of the giants in the game – YouTube. What started off as a simple platform to facilitate video sharing and simplify finding popular videos online in a free and effortless fashion, plus what some theories suggest - as an online video dating service, but later led to accepting videos of any kind, is today a social media behemoth. Acquired very early and strategically by Google and smartly made a part of its ecosystem, it stood the test of time and the challenge of many competitors to emerge as one of the most reliable, easy-to-use and go-to video apps in the world. From entertainment to education to conspiracy theories, it has it all. From clips lasting few seconds to full length feature films, it houses all that you can imagine and more. Sure, it had its ups and downs when it comes to the privacy & piracy of content, appropriateness for all age groups etc - calling to question its censorship and thereafter its copyrighting and piracy related policies, but it has braved all those storms to finally establish a superbly laid out infrastructure, with a crafty underlying algorithm that keeps its viewers coming back for more.
So what could be summarized simply as a video hosting & sharing service and worked with the tagline – “Broadcast Yourself”, has undergone a number of iterations and become this major multifunctional video service, which doesn’t just offer a platform for sharing original and edited, curated videos in real time, but also support live streaming services from anywhere on the globe, by simply creating a ‘channel’ and having a stable internet connection. From podcasts, to parallel news sources, movie reviews to food recipes, match highlights to spectating live games – it has made it all possible.
Who would have imagined that becoming a YouTuber would be a full-time gig and quite authentically a career choice and ambition? Whether or not influenced by the lifestyles of current players who are winning at it or desires to be like them, but this has become a much sought-after option especially because of its accessibility, ease of use and supposed lucrative money-making potential. YouTube has literally given birth to some next-generation superstars - the reach, influence, aura and impact of whom is beyond what some of the legends have been able to manage across their long spanning careers. Not taking the name of anyone in particular, but it has opened the doors for displaying one’s skills, creativity, expertise, hidden talents and as the company’s mission now says – ‘to give everyone a voice and show them the world’, as they believe that everyone deserves a voice and that the world can be a better place when we listen, share and build communities through our own stories.
Not too bad for a video company meant to simplify video sharing and help broadcast yourself to reach a stage where they believe in pillars of - Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Information , Freedom of Opportunity and Freedom to Belong.
Rightly described years ago as – ‘the SMS of the Internet’, Twitter had an identity crisis of its own initially. What was it – a social network, a microblogging site, or something else? Not quite replacing any existing function, but even then packing a punch with its feature of being more of an information network, giving a real-time status in limited number of characters (140 characters) and leading to spread of information far and wide to multiple people in one go without being a traditional SMS. Creating a community like feeling and the feeling of having a voice, being connected to people, causes and sources one wished to connect with, it caught on like fire, with newer and bigger records being created over time, especially with significant events – be it sporting, musical or otherwise adding to the euphoria and increasing people’s wish to be seen, engaged with, heard and increasingly over time – be validated.
A lot has changed since then, with not just the number of characters increasing from 140 to 280, the ability to add images and other forms of media, directly being able to connect with your favourite celebrities and creating engagement like never before. With the advent of hashtags, users can group posts and start a conversation around a topic, person, event or more and over time by the sheer quantum of engagement, literally go to the extent of creating outrage which could go either ways – either unite and mobilize people into movements for a cause and spur positive outcomes or send people spiralling down and lead to an uproar and destruction, abuse, toxicity and unleash massive chaos.
Something created to provide an alternative to the incumbent SMS, reaching multiple people at a time, over the internet, is today a vehicle for expression of opinions and has given everyone a vent to offload their bullets in the form of words, with the trigger being the ‘send/enter’ button. Not everything is bad however, as it still helps businesses grow by helping them spread the word, market directly & indirectly through word of mouth, helps people be in touch with and feel close to personalities they admire, spurs creativity, makes some deserving people overnight sensations and helps unearth lot of disparities, cases of injustice, mishaps, or irresponsibility on the part of authorities by making them accountable and answerable to the public at large who can now more than ever rally together – faster and stronger.
Interestingly, not an out and out smooth road for this app too. Started as Burbn, a check-in app, but later refocussed to be a photo sharing app, gaining immense popularity and fervour among the users. Aided by a simultaneous development in the mobile phone cameras market with significantly improved and handy cameras facilitating the clicking, storage and sharing of high-quality pictures and videos, leading to the rise and rise of Instagram. From stock photos to edited and filtered images, practically altering reality. Filters which made the user experience enjoyable and unshackled the chains put on people’s imaginations and lets creativity take flight. Perfectly synergized with the growth of memes, the introduction of the functionality to add videos and inter-connection with other social media platforms.
A step in the right direction came with the imminent acquisition by Facebook, which over time along with the acquisition of WhatsApp, completed the perfect trifecta and gave the much-needed boost to take this platform to the next level. Controversial enough, but the injection of popular features – ripped-off or inspired, whatever the case may be, in the form of stories, from the erstwhile popular SnapChat or the more recent – Reels from TikTok has made it a formidable platform, offering not just the ability to share images, but also videos – long form or short, market products, connect to influential people, send private messages, develop a multi-faceted brand – professional and personal, amongst several other powerful features.
The kind of connections established on this platform are unparalleled to any other platform. With numerous people spread over different industries making obscene amount of money for literally putting out a single post, solely based on the number of followers they have, the impressions they can lead to and the eyeballs they can grab, leading to a humongous quantum of activity on the platform, in this attention economy and driving engagement in the form of likes, shares, comments, increase in time spent on the app, conversions in the form of subscriptions, purchases or sign-ups. No longer just synonymous with beautiful pictures, it is a one-stop shop for information, entertainment, gossip, edutainment as they call it and with the bug that has bitten us all, there is no stopping it for a long time.
I for one remember switching my phone which did not support this app for a phone which did, roughly about 12 years ago. Such was the impact of this app even back then as it revolutionized the field of instant messaging. While it was certainly not the first one. It may not even now be the best one as per different people with different needs or preferences. However, there is no denying that it changed the game once and for all. With the lucid interface, the system of knowing that the message has left your device, reached the other person and furthermore even been read by the targeted person, coupled with the amusing mode of interaction in the form of emoticons or emojis, taking the edge off conversations and making them have some life, some spunk and casualness to it. The ability to form groups, share your location, documents, images, keep customised pictures as you display picture – these were welcome additions to the foray of instant messaging and got people hooked almost effortlessly.
Today, not just can we do all that is mentioned above, but the sheer efficiency, speed, increase in capacity of the features offered – be it the size of groups, the size of files shareable, the type of files shareable, functionality of voice notes, editing pictures and trimming videos on the go, amongst others has made this as good as an essential day to day feature of our lives, with several formalities of documentations too happening over WhatsApp and gaining acceptance officially. One of the breakthrough aspects it brought along over the years was the calling feature – both voice and video. Gone are the days when one needed to have a pricey plan to call overseas and be wary of the time elapsed. Or sit in front of the computer to Skype their loved ones every once in a while. With the WhatsApp video and voice calling over an internet connection, this aspect of life just got revolutionized, with just an account and a stable internet connection needed and one could reach out to any part of the world in a moment, without digging a deep hole in their pocket and experience better than ever quality of interactions.
A true measure of success is when what you do essentially becomes a verb for that function. We have seen it with Google, with Uber, with Xerox and certainly seeing it with WhatsApp. Quite nonchalantly slipping into our vocabulary as a replacement of the words – message, send, share, forward and more, by a simple – WhatsApp it! So from being a smarter, sleeker alternative to texting and file sharing, it has become a cornerstone of communication and a life saver for people conducting transactions over it or even balancing a long-distance relationship spread over continents.
Shifting gears from a fun and peppy platform to a professional one. LinkedIn started off as an employment-oriented service with employers and recruiters putting out job posts on the platform, much like the job boards format and aspiring employees/candidates creating profiles, showcasing their experience. It garnered the serious perception from the word go and for the longest time stayed limited to working professionals and as an extension or add-on to the standard CV or resume, never as an alternative. However, with the increasing acceptance and adoption, especially with the quick verification and authentication that could be done online with previous employers and/or colleagues and a greater footfall and user acceptance, this changed and a LinkedIn profile more or less started becoming a substitute or valid alternative to the traditional 2 pager CV.
Work experience, alma mater listing for academic experience, alumni groups, professional photographs, recommendations, testimonials and interests, made the perfect recipe for any head hunter to quickly glance through and get an all-round view of a potential candidate, further facilitating his job with the ease of access of directly dropping a message and setting up an interview. In addition to job seeker’s profiles, the platform also gave a chance for companies of every size, scale and form to be on one common platform and create a brand for themselves, spread the word about their organization, their culture, work environment, policies, people, initiatives and create a professional rapport with other companies and employees – current, ex and prospective.
Add to this blend the functionality of making posts, sharing good posts, articles from other sites, publishing own articles and content across a plethora of relevant topics and in different forms – articles, presentations, spreadsheets, images and now even videos, this has made LinkedIn not just any other job portal, but indeed a community and the members quite rightly so – connections! Quite like other platforms, which encourage sharing of stories, ideas, thoughts, LinkedIn does the same albeit the content is drastically different and is a lot more professional, insightful, data and facts driven, aimed at stirring up intellectual reflections and conversations and by doing so, leads to the emergence of several thought leaders, who create a following and guide numerous aspiring students and professionals and help them carve their path.
There are definitely some distinctions between this platform and others of its kind, starting with the underlying philosophy of learning together, growing together, be it via facilities such as Lynda, Linkedin Learning or other courses and resources that are continuously posted and shared, or by approaching established personalities in particular streams and being mentored by them. Even in terms of accepting requests to befriend or connect to someone, there is a far greater openness on this platform as compared to others, where there exists an element of fear or security concern, which is alleviated here, just by the sheer premise of this being a no nonsense civilized and sophisticated learning and work utility.
The one disturbing trend observed lately however is the excessive showcase of achievements, no matter how trivial it may be, the botched up or cooked up experiences to pad up the profile and the emphatic celebrations or complaints over bite sized victories or issues as the case may be. While I understand that the competition is high, that it’s a rat race out there and you have to come out on top to grab someone’s attention or bag that dream job or internship, however at times the means to achieve it cross all bounds and look downright desperate. May be the call of day, especially with the state of unemployment and dearth of opportunities, but even then in my opinion, there needs to be a toning down of the same; while helping a connection in need, needs to be ramped up and made more genuine and not just restricted to an easy one liner – ‘commenting for better reach!’
As promised, limiting them to just the 5 for now, however there are many more apps, websites, platforms, ever evolving, ever upgrading, catering to the need of the hour and demands of the consumers. Also, there is no right or wrong way with these apps, they’re above all a product/service, who have to and will go through their trajectory and life stages, evolve, survive or die, consume others or be consumed themselves and in their own small or big way, change the status quo! Some honourable mentions to cap it all off are as under :
Facebook The big daddy, the third arm of the trifecta and the force behind WhatsApp and Instagram too. Not without its own share of controversies, right from its initiation, to its handling of data and security breaches, it has been a major player in our lives and in the growth and progress of social media in general. Be it the basic functionalities, or the more recent ones such as – the live feature, the 360-degree videos, its own messenger or now the marketplace too, it has played an important role in keeping us connected and continues to do so. Not to forget the boost it gave to the rise and stronghold of the meme culture, whereby, they are no longer just another source of entertainment or sarcasm, but sometimes even an apt reflection of state of affairs around us.
Orkut Not sure if this makes me sound old or some of the readers might even remember this or not, but it was the social network that got the early adopters hooked on, however fell victim to the advent of Facebook and some of its own major flaws that became glaring enough to work through or ignore,
TikTok Another video sharing app, specialising in the short-form videos, which amassed immense popularity and still continues to rise, despite being banned in India. Even became a serious contender to challenge the incumbents, leading to the recent, infamous YouTube vs TikTok debate, the conversations around the quality of its content – cringe or not? It is still trying to find a solution to the furore over data security and the impacts of questionable content. However, being a fairly recent player, it remains to be seen, how it changes over time, whether it survives or dies out and if it does survive, then what does it bring to the table?
Take a minute to think or go through your own Social Media journey. Any major apps missed out? Any interesting memories or life events that happened thanks to these apps? Or just about anything associated to them that has made an impact on your lives? Please feel free to share, after all, you did not come this far to only come this far, go the distance and let it out!