The Social Media Landscape: Conclusion.
The Bright Team
The Bright Team • Jan 17

The Social Media Landscape: Conclusion.

Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines.

We wrap up our series on the social media landscape and discusses the new opportunities and challenges that arise from the latest changes in social media. We explore the evolution of social media, changes in search algorithms, challenges with search engine optimization, the rise of AI in social media, concerns with AI chatbots, opportunities in content moderation, the potential of new social media networks, the role of AI in human connection, and the need for addressing core issues.  We conclude by introducing our next series on the freedom of expression.

Taryn Ward  Hi, I'm Taryn Ward,

Steven Jones  and I'm Steven Jones,

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TW.  and this is Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines

SJ.  We're taking a closer look at the core issues around social media, including the rise and fall of social media empires, to better understand the role social media plays in our everyday lives and society.

TW.  This episode will wrap up our series on the social media landscape with a few parting words on how the latest changes in social media and the changes we're anticipating offer consumers, brands, and influencers new opportunities. First, we'll take a quick look back at where we started. Before TikTok, Instagram or even MySpace, there was America Online, and before even the earliest online social networks, we had shortwave and CB radio. In its earliest days, social media was most remarkable for the commitment it required. Far from convenient or efficient, it really was a labour of love, a way to connect with people who are physically out of reach for whatever reason.

SJ.  Over time, these networks have begun to serve a core function in our lives, and now it's difficult to imagine our lives without them or even a different version of them. And these networks and their aims are in many ways unrecognisable from where they started.

TW.  But due to a number of factors, rising public awareness, increased regulatory scrutiny and, strangely enough, the rise of AI, social media is on the brink of a transition, and although this can feel unsettling, especially for those of us who don't like change, it also presents a host of opportunities.

SJ.  The first opportunity, and the most important one, is for all of us to pause and reflect. Pausing is the hardest part we know. But before we dive headlong into what's next, what do we want to bring with us? What about those early social networks is worth bringing back? What about the existing networks is worth preserving? And, of course, what are we missing? What harm has been caused? And? And how can we address them?

TW.  All good questions. Fundamentally, we all have an opportunity to get back to basics. I don't mean to dial up don't worry I'm not suggesting we throw out our 5G. I mean, connecting with people in a meaningful way. That sounds squishy-feely, I don't mean it that way. Or at least I don't mean it just that way. So, let's take a more concrete example like search, how we search for things is changing. This could be bad news for Google, or really bad news for Google. But really, it's about time we have some meaningful choices. We've known for ages that when we type something into Google search, the results aren't necessarily the most relevant, or the highest quality, or even the best fit for what we're trying to find, and while technology has advanced the point that this experience should be consistently improving, it often feels like the opposite is happening, and that was even before they started mixing in paid advertisements, right into the results.

SJ.  Yeah, it's not the most annoying decision that you could possibly make the one their market position, but by having the best algorithm and it was I mean, you and I both did search back in the early days of the Internet, when you used Yahoo or out of this, that or any of the other plethora of, of companies in the world, there were there were quite a few of them, and Google came along as suddenly, Pam, they had a great algorithm. But unfortunately, of course, no business model, and just like Facebook, they decided that the easiest way to money make money was to sell adverts, because of course they did, and now we can't, we can't tell the results from the adverts, or at least they're making it more and more difficult for us to tell genuine results from the adverts, and they're all doing it now you can even go on Expedia without having to change the settings to not the featured. But you know, the one which most actually resembles your search criteria, which you entered for a reason in the first place. You know, 

TW.  Yeah, sure.Yeah. Yeah, yeah, and this is why we can't have nice things, because somebody will find a way to monetise it by selling ads and will ruin it. But yeah, I had forgotten about that. I mean, I remember the first time I used Google and how exciting it was, and now, not only are they not improved things, it's managed to get worse, and what does that mean? Really, it means that if you're a small business, and what you're offering is actually the best and it's the best fit for what someone is searching for. You're still probably showing up on page eight in the search results. Maybe not actually page eight, but definitely not page one in certainly not near the top of the page or anywhere above the fold, because you haven't paid for an ad, and or you haven't hired an expensive agency to create an implement an SEO, or search engine optimisation strategy that can game the system. So, you're out of luck, no matter how relevant your offering, how great your customer service, how beautiful your website, how witty your witticisms people aren't going to find your page. Even if that's what they really, really, really want unless they use very specific and niche keywords. So, if you're selling kiwi fruit pendants made of recycled plastic in Gloucestershire, and someone searches “kiwi fruit pendants, recycled plastic Gloucestershire”, that may be different. But if someone is instead looking for locally made quirky gifts or eco-friendly necklaces, you're going to have a really hard time. 

TW.  Now, you might argue, but how is Google supposed to know that? I want a kiwi fruit pendant made of recycled plastic made in Gloucestershire, if I don't tell it. While I'm so glad you asked. Lots of ways actually, and Google probably does know that. That's a different conversation. But Google probably knows that before you can even articulate it yourself, and not only that, that's what you want, when you want it. That's the conversation we'll get into when we do our privacy series. 

TW.  My point, here's slightly different: search is changing so that this won't be an issue at all, in large part, thanks to developments in AI. So, that, or what we all refer to as AI anyway, you can type in or speak your criteria, have a more relevant list returned, and then edit and adjust as needed, and see results that are the best fit rather than see who paid for the best advert or SEO strategy. That one got away from me a bit. My point, though, is that this is one example of how things are changing and how it presents really broad opportunities for changes that benefits consumers, but also some brands and influencers, and it's a change that's coming to social media. Elon Musk has already launched his Twitter AI or XAI grok, and several others have trialed AI bots, some of whom even pretend to be real humans.

SJ.  Oh, god. Yeah. I mean, okay, there was a lot there, and all of it is true, right? I mean, the reality is that even if you asked for kiwi pendants made in Gloucestershire, you'll probably see Etsy and Amazon ads for the first eight things, and that's unfortunate, because it really, you know, many of us are trying to buy locally and support local shops. You know, many of us actually like shopping. I know that some of us prefer to shop online, but I actually like going into the shops and looking and seeing things and finding things, you know, it's that delight factor, finding something unexpected, and maybe that's a function of my, my age, but you're never going to find that on an online search, and let's come to that last, that last thing. 

SJ.  So, machines that pretend to be human, I mean, what can go wrong? Right? I think I read a headline this week, that you can actually have a service that will pretend to be an online girlfriend, and that the men and let's be honest, it is almost exclusively men that use the service that use it actually feel lonelier will well of course they do. Because you can't form a genuine relationship with the machine. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love my phone. But not in the same way that I love my kids, or your kids, or my wife, or you and Jay I mean, it's not possible to feel the same way unless you're a little weird. So, why are why are we doing that? Why? Why are we making AI to replace human lives rather than to enhance our human experience and make it easier for us to connect with real people and make a genuine connection? But the only answer that I can come up with is because the people who are responsible for designing and determining which technology we're going to make a fundamentally broken.

TW.  Yeah, I don't have a better alternative theory to put forward. It's it's a tough one, and I think the Snapchat one in particular bothers me, and this is supposed to be an episode about hope and potential and opportunity. So, I'm, I'm going to move on after this. But I think because so many people use Snapchat and because so many people use Snapchat so regularly, they created this bot and you and I both went on and engaged with it right away, and very quickly, it told me it was a real person, and it couldn't answer some of my questions, and anyway, we had a we had a falling out rather rather quickly, it even fall out with a with an AI chatbot. Leave it to me to find a way to do it. But it was really it was really worrying because Snapchat already feels so sort of strange. We you know, with the avatars and the filters and everything else is already an element of this is sort of real, but sort of not real, and then you add on this AI chatbot and it's you can see how it would be disorienting for an adult, but certainly for a young person. But I think that is really worrying and I do think it's important that as we talk about the opportunities and hope and potential. We don't lose sight of where this is not a human-centred activity. It's really easy to get lost really quickly.

SJ.  Yeah, absolutely, and let's not forget, there was an article, and it was in the New York Times or The Guardian this week, that said that AI hallucinates 13% of the time like illegal, it just makes things out of nowhere, which is, which is really interesting. I mean, I really like to know why that's happening. But, but also, it's horrifying if you are you relying on this to give you know, responses, reasonable responses to questions. Some of it is essentially going to be lying, which is a very human behaviour but not intended in the system.

TW.  Yeah, no, exactly. It is, it is really, it is really worrying, and we will have much more to say about this in future episodes. For now, though, potential and opportunity. Search is just one example of what's ahead of us. But it's a great one because it presents opportunities for brands and influencers, but also consumers, so we can actually find what we're looking for. Another opportunity that's important to all of us is content moderation. This is a huge problem on existing platforms, in part because these companies don't want to pay people, or at least they don't want to pay people a reasonable or appropriate wage for the work they're doing. Content moderators have a high burnout rate, and very often struggle with complex mental health issues, and although there's no excuse for how many of these platforms treat content moderators, some of the technological advances we've seen and are likely to see in the near future, will allow content moderators to view less problematic content less frequently, and to stop some of the really serious problems we see in social media before they reach a fever pitch. Of course, all of this still depends on platforms actually implementing this technology in prioritising it. But in this case, it's likely to be good for their bottom line. So, there's some hope that we'll actually see some improvements here.

SJ.  In this case, too, it's not just consumers or social media uses to benefit influence as a youth. They're subjected to all manner of online abuse, and you see some of them post comments and interactions with, with people who chose to follow them, and they're just creepy, and brands, sometimes find themselves in an advertisement is next to problematic content. I'm looking at you, Elon, which is a nightmare. We've heard repeatedly. There's no, there's no reason for any of this. Now, of course, but advancements in AI mean that we're more likely than ever to see change for the better.

TW.  Yeah, but I hope so. Finally, new social media networks in most cases offer something of a fresh start and can sometimes offer a more level playing field. Similar to the search example, well established brands that have pumped six figures or more into developing a brand and an audience over several years, are really difficult to compete with. This was one of the things people really loved about TikTok for a time, it was possible to go from no audience to a huge number of views and followers overnight. It's also an opportunity for well established brands, though, to try new things and experiment, especially with their voice, and to get really creative without risking a major pivot on a platform they're well established on where consumers have clear expectations of how they're going to engage. 

TW.  Of course, these opportunities largely depend on the social media offerings, and we've learned the hard way over the past few years that disruption isn't always good for everyone. But for the reasons above, we think there is reason to hope this transition will be a positive one, and on that note, back to squishy feely for just one second. In many ways, it feels like we need real human connection now more than ever, or at least ever in my lifetime, and while AI isn't the solution, in the sense that we should start replacing our friends or significant others with robots, any more than any other technology can fix inherently human problems, if we can use it to our advantage with human-centred approaches across the board, it's possible for it to be a helpful tool and maybe we can even achieve some of those things we were hoping for back in the 90s

SJ.  Yeah, and I mean at that I think that takes us back to the beginning, which was we used these technologies, whether it was radio or chat boards, or America Online or Yahoo chat rooms or Instagram to connect with people that we knew and liked, and to find a you know, our slightly weird people, the people out there who you know, like Warhammer 40,000 like Henry Cavell, thank you so much God for placing somebody who looks like him on the planet who likes nerdy crap because it made the rest of us cooler, just by extension, you know, and people know about that because of social media, right? That's the huge benefit. 

SJ.  But you know, there is tremendous potential with AI provided As those things it helps us do those things that we needed to do, which was formed those real connections with people talk about real things, not be fed, toxic lies at the behest of an algorithm that thinks will enjoy it, and, you know, help those moderators, and I think that was a really good point help us moderators, who, let's be honest, are essential to the functioning of a proper social network. Without them this would be dreadful we can see on some sites that don't moderate very much how bad this get. But we need humans to distinguish human behaviour like that the nuance what's funny, and what's dreadful, that's context sensitive, based on your, you know, your culture, and it's going to be a very long time before AI is going to be able to machine learning tools to be able to, to distinguish that and we need people who can understand for example, when countries are pursuing genocidal actions against a minority group, I'm looking at you Meta. So, those sorts of those sorts of tools help us focus those moderators on the things where human interaction and human perspective is absolutely required. I think that's, that's what we should be doing. We shouldn't be. We don't need a human to say, Yeah, we shouldn't have a video of someone being beheaded on our on our website. That's, that's a no, that's a no brainer, surely. So, hopefully, things will, if we use this technology properly, things will get better. You know, at the end of the day, I think it will be down to the market to determine that because if new systems come along, new networks come along that use this properly. Hopefully, people vote with their feet and their wallets, and either the existing platforms can lead the charge, or they can play catch up. I'm really not sure what which way it's gonna go. What do you tjhink?

TW.  I think we'll see a little bit of both. I know that sounds like a fence riding answer. But I think that's, I think we're gonna see a lot of experimentation, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. My worry is that some of the bigger issues that we've identified throughout the series, especially with some of the really well-established platforms, unless those issues are answered, whether you pile AI or some other new technology on top of it, those are going to persist, and the more advanced technology gets, the more dangerous those all become. So, I'm trying to think about exactly how I want to say this, I think, you know, unless you address the core issue, AI has the potential to make that issue a lot worse, and I think that's true of every technology. 

TW.  But my concern is that unless we see some movement, in terms of competition from other platforms, in terms of better regulation, more serious regulation, we're headed down a potentially dangerous path. What does give me hope is that the international community has responded relatively quickly to AI in a way that we didn't see with social media, we still don't really see it with social media, and in order for social media companies to really compete into to take advantage of these technologies, they're going to have to comply with some of these issues, and it's also an opportunity to have some of these conversations about social media that we didn't have 10 or 20 years ago. 

SJ.  No, I think I think that's I think that's right, and I mean, maybe part of it is that AI landed with a splash. I mean, just about a year ago, I think, chat GPT-3 was announced, I was working with you in Oxford, and it came out where social media crept up on us sort of very slowly. From its humble beginnings, didn't it? It was like boiling a frog, suddenly, we were swimming in this boiling hot cesspool, whereas you know, there was no avoiding the flashbang of, of Chat-GPT. So, thank you, for that AI teams across the world, and, you know, it's possibly also helpful that we've reached critical mass of being worried about social media, at the same time that social media and search companies have started integrating AI, and now we're like, well, putting these tools in the hands of people who can’t be responsible with the ones they've got is perhaps a bad idea, and this actually does worry me a bit that you take toxic algorithms and attach them to machine learning algorithms. Probably a network of machine learning algorithms and these things start talking to one another, and nobody is an expert in how the whole system works, and therefore, it will just, you know, spiral out of control because there is there aren't humans in critical control points. That's not to say I do agree with you that there is a lot of hope that this could make some huge leap forward. You know, I'm always a fan of the more optimistic science fiction, and, and you know, AI always forms for today If, if anybody's interested, The Culture is a great example like tire planets run by a massive AI, which is always there to help you and not there to feed you lies and, and make your life miserable. That's where we want to be headed and not in the way that puts even more money into the hands of a very small number of people in Silicon Valley. 

TW.  I think that is a great note to end the series on what do you think?

SJ.  I think I think it's good. Otherwise, I'll just start ranting more. So, let's stop there, and tell everybody about what's next.

TW.  Exactly, We’ll, we'll save those rants. We'll save any further ads for the next series, which will start next time. So, next time, we'll larger series on the freedom of expression and free speech. We'll start with a quick look back at how these freedoms have been understood and evolved over time. Consider the difference between state and personal action and why this is important now more than ever, or whether it's an outdated framework, and discuss how social media companies try to balance concepts of liberty and security and where we think there's room for improvement. 

TW.  In the meantime, we'll post a transcript of this episode with references on our website. You can find this and more about us at

SJ.  Until next time, I'm Steven Jones,

TW.  and I'm Taryn Ward.

SJ.  Thank you for joining us for Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines.

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