By Neer Sharma

There is a paradox at the heart of our digital lives: as we become increasingly connected as a society, we somehow feel increasingly lonely. How did this happen? To put it simply, the platforms at the heart of our digital lives have not optimised for helping people meaningfully connect with each other. We have confused ‘ease of contact’ with ‘meaningful connection’. In other words, simply bringing your social world to your fingertips doesn’t necessarily help you feel heard or belong.

Let’s take Instagram. Seeing people do the things that you’re not doing lies at the core of its experience. Instagram is like a psychological Ponzi scheme: we’re all trading for attention, hoping that it pays back in self-esteem. Yet, seeing the sea of people that are more beautiful, popular, richer, smarter, and funnier places us in an infinite game of comparison at a global scale. All of this is delivered to you via algorithms optimising for the time you spend on the platform. People are incentivised to present themselves in their best, most-curated form. The consequence is that for the most part, we have made our best-lives public, and keep our worst-lives private.

Over the last few years, I’ve been travelling around the world talking to people about social media. I often ask a room two questions: how many people use a platform like Instagram every day? And how many people enjoy the time they spend on it? What’s amazing is how many hands fill the room after the first question, and most of them fall after the second question. How is it that we spend our time on our smartphones doing something that doesn’t actually bring us joy?

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The future presents an opportunity for change. Just as Facebook swallowed up most aspects of digital life (something that is called ‘bundling’), what follows is an opportunity for ‘unbundling’ or the emergence of smaller niche communities. As Facebook and Instagram fatigue hits the world in waves, with people increasingly deleting their accounts and becoming more conscious of how they’re living their digital lives, there is a chance for entrepreneurs to rewrite the rules of social media as we know it.

The future of social doesn’t need to be based on obsessing about what your friends are doing right now, being passively ‘influenced’ by ‘influencers’, or presenting an idealised version of your life. Instead focus on bringing people together in a space where everyone can express themselves without judgement, always be heard and belong. For instance, the act of writing together is the context for strangers to connect.

If we, as platform creators, shift from manipulating to truly serving the ‘user’, we can leverage the power of technology to help individuals build deeper, richer, longer-term connections with smaller groups of people that mean more than amassing huge followings.

This will also require a shift in business model thinking away from getting people to passively consume ads – which could pose challenges for brands who are used to paying for ‘reach’ on platforms that are ‘everything for everyone’. The best, most innovative brands will be looking for opportunities to deeply integrate with the platforms that have shared values, and look to meaningfully interact with those communities in contexts that align with the brand’s mission.

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The true potential of social media is yet to be unleashed. Right now, while everyone has the ability to speak online, not everyone is being heard. We have created platforms that encourage passive consumption and numb our ingenuity. We have loosened social connections, rather than helping create meaningful ones. We’re now entering a transitional phase where the future of social media is once again up for grabs and it is time that we change things for the better.

(The author is co-founder of collaborative writing app HaikuJam)





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