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The world of social media is always changing, and 2023 is likely going to see more change, especially after a year like 2022.
Social media is such an integral part of modern life that any change on a platform can be seismic, and this past year was defined by change. TikTok’s star continued to rise, Meta struggled to maintain relevance as Mark Zuckerberg committed to the Metaverse and Twitter imploded under Elon Musk.
Northeastern University experts say the social media landscape in 2023 will continue to be defined by these power players––but in ways that we might not expect.
TikTok remained one of the biggest social media successes of 2022 and will likely stay that way in 2023, says John Wihbey, associate professor of media innovation and technology at Northeastern. But factors on the world political stage could impact the platform, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. Congress is considering banning TikTok on U.S. government phones as part of its massive spending bill, and more than 15 states have banned the app on government-issued devices. As relations between the U.S. and China continue to evolve, the platform could face even more regulatory barriers.
“One could imagine––should things continue to heat up between the United States and China––that the company could start to get squeezed by regulators,” Wihbey says. “Some of the bloom may come off the rose a bit because elites and leaders in the United States start really focusing on this issue. TikTok may become more of a political football in the way that Facebook did after 2016.”
However, more broadly, TikTok’s algorithm poses questions that the world at large is only starting to consider, Wihbey says.
“TikTok, for all of its dazzle and for all of its innovation, doesn’t change the underlying concern that we’re basically engineering platforms to harness human attention in ways that are somewhat deceptive, probably harmful, not great for, particularly, young people,” Wihbey says “That is one thing that we have to grapple with.”
Moving into 2023, the biggest question mark in social media is still Twitter. After purchasing the platform for $44 billion, Elon Musk spent his time as CEO laying off employees and raising the ire of Twitter users with policy changes on the platform, some of which were made based on the results of informal Twitter polls. Musk announced this week he would be stepping down as CEO and looking for a replacement, but does that mean his successor will be able to right the ship?
“At the end of the day it’s not going to solve any issues because at the end of the day it’s still not clear if Elon fully treats Twitter like another engineering company, like Tesla or SpaceX, or if he’s attuned to the fact that it’s very much a company that depends on understanding human dynamics and how humans interact,” says Yakov Bart, a Northeastern associate professor of marketing.
Regardless of how Twitter moves forward, Musk’s chaotic tenure as CEO has already started ripples that could cascade into tidal waves in 2023.
In the wake of Musk’s handling of Twitter, new platforms have risen. Mastodon, a decentralized social media platform, is the most prominent. The platform has amassed 2.5 million monthly active users, which is still a fraction of Twitter’s 450 million but it proves that social media alternatives outside corporate-controlled options are feasible.
“Will Mastodon turn into a world superpower? No,” says Rahul Bhargava, an assistant professor of art, design and journalism at Northeastern. “Will it become a viable alternative? Actually, I think it might, which is great. We need more social media channels, and we need alternatives. We can’t let this important communicative scaffolding be governed by three capitalist American corporations.”
Mastodon might not be the next killer app, but Bart says it’s highly possible that an entirely new platform could step in to fill the Twitter shaped hole in the market. Social media success is a game of exponential growth where platforms rise and fall rapidly once they gain or lose traction.
“It’s entirely plausible that a platform we’ve barely noticed today will be the biggest talk of the town in 2023 because the nature of the social media platforms is such that the network effects are strong,” Bart says.
As for Facebook, Bhargava argues Meta’s approach to the platform “dooms them to failure.”
“Facebook can’t succeed anymore unless they invent something that’s used by multiple billions of people,” Bhargava says. “There’s only so many things that could be used by multiple billions of people.”
The company’s value tanked in 2022, dropping about 70% in less than a year, due in part to lack of confidence that the metaverse, Zuckerberg’s vision of an immersive, VR-driven social experience, will be that billion-user idea. Bart expects Meta will start integrating some elements of the metaverse into Facebook and Instagram in 2023, but the platform’s success in the new year will live or die based on Facebook’s ability to “emulate the competition.”
“Certainly, they’re trying to figure out if they can copy this ‘secret sauce’ of TikTok,” Bart says. “The quality of recommendations is fantastic, which keeps people glued to TikTok. I think Facebook will try to replicate it by trying to optimize which recommended content they show in the newsfeed on Facebook.”
As with most things in social media, the best way to see into the future is by looking at the younger generations. Gen Z’s social media habits are already charting a future for how the technology will be used moving forward.
“We always have to watch the younger crowd and its tastes and trends changing because that will influence things upstream for the older generations,” says Wihbey. Are they as enamored of very public facing social platforms where you’re essentially publishing out to the world? Maybe not. Maybe they are going to be more into encrypted apps. … Maybe they are going to be much more guarded about their data and how they express themselves.”
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