What’s Next for the Internet?
When the internet turned 30 in March of 2019, it felt like a significant moment. Significant because the internet has had a seismic impact on modern life in a relatively short space of time. Fifty-seven percent of the world’s population has access to the internet. Five billion people own a phone; four billion of those are smartphones. The internet isn’t quite ubiquitous yet, but ubiquity isn’t far away.
Many would argue that the future of the internet is headed in the wrong direction. The internet is a track where, due to the sheer volume of people and content, algorithms are now responsible for huge amounts of content curation and prioritization. And too many of these algorithms still struggle to distinguish between videos and articles that nourish our understanding, and those that appeal to our baser, darker instincts; monitoring these algorithms on a 24/7 basis is nearly impossible and opens the door for manipulation by bad actors. This means that the same tactics that help an individual find fame, or help businesses increase sales, can also be used to spread misinformation and promote hate speech to a large audience over an extremely short period of time.
Platform owners are trying to keep up by implementing big changes in an attempt to improve their systems and their filters, but sensitive material continues to slip through. Copies of the New Zealand terrorist attack video
were uploaded to Facebook 1.5M times in the 24 hours after the incident; all were removed, but it indicates the scale of the challenge the big platforms face.
The fact that on this track, responsibility for curating and controlling these hugely-influential algorithms appears to sit with just a few companies, is coming under increasing regulatory scrutiny. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren used an appearance at the recent tech festival, SXSW Interactive, to announce calls for action against big tech. A bipartisan pair of senators want “commercial data operators” with over 100 million monthly users to disclose how much the data they’ve gleaned is worth. The EU continues to attempt to rein in big tech’s influence, riding on the back of the success of GDPR to unveil its Digital Services Act at the end of the year. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is also expected to call for a regulatory authority to oversee online advertising. However, other than General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), rolled out across Europe in 2018, and the UK government’s Online Harms White Paper and digital advertising investigation, no concrete proposals have been initiated. Regulating the big tech industry and the internet has proven to be a complex challenge for governments in the West.
Rules and Regs Challenges
The broad scope of this challenge is prominently on display in the U.S., where existing antitrust rules are primarily focused on price and ensuring monopolies don’t overcharge consumers. Applying the outdated logic of these laws to big tech firms, many of whom provide free services, offer customers the lowest prices, and whose premium price point is part of its popularity, will be extremely difficult. This new breed of conglomerate calls for a new type of legislation; a process which won’t be quick or easy. To be effective, regulation will also need to have a more internationally-focused outlook; perhaps similar to laws regarding outer space or climate change.
Another (perhaps greater) challenge to regulation might come from the tech companies themselves and the speed at which they innovate. To be successful and deliver on behalf of their customers and shareholders (and keep up with the competition) it is their job to continually update their technology and keep their platforms at the cutting edge. Laws could be passed that are made irrelevant in a matter of months by a significant pivot.
The next wave of changes are already on the horizon, as tech and social media companies respond to the existential threats facing internet culture and the open-source dream that sits behind it. On the internet’s 30th birthday, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, published an open letter detailing what he sees as the main challenges for his “child” as it moves into middle-age. Tim’s letter encouraged readers to “come together as a global web community” to beat these challenges and avoid blaming one company or one government.
While we’re not all working together just yet, you can see change beginning to take shape; one can even start to envisage a number of different, but overlapping, futures for the internet.
We’ve picked out three interdependent scenarios we expect to develop over the next five years. Whatever their final form, these scenarios are going to make a big difference in how CEOs and businesses communicate with their key audiences, and will, for everyone, dramatically shift the way information is shared; it’s worth planning for the appearance of such scenarios now.
Scenario One: A World Without Newsfeeds
The newsfeed is the emblem of the past decade. Pioneered by Facebook and Twitter, the endless scroll of updates has changed the way we share and consume information. But the newsfeed has become problematic both for its creators and for its users. The aforementioned algorithmic delivery system was originally introduced to ensure platform users didn’t miss out on important updates (if your best friend is on the other side of the world, you shouldn’t have to scroll for hours to find their latest picture). But these algorithms are not infallible, and users have begun to tire of their bluntness, as well as the pressure of public sharing and its associated “like” counts, comment sections and the potential these features present by inviting unwanted replies and interaction.
Increasingly, the way we communicate is focused around messaging. As we tire of the feeling of “broadcasting to no one,” we take refuge in carefully curated group chats: sports talk with your football buddies, baby pictures with your family, nostalgia with your school friends. Messaging puts the user in control of your audience, not an algorithm. And messaging gives the user privacy and removes the possibility of spam and trolls.
Facebook in particular has taken note of this trend and is doubling down on it. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced a move toward privacy; no specifics were mentioned, but the benefits to the business are plain to see. It keeps users happy, shouldn’t affect advertisers too adversely, and means that the actions of bad actors will become less visible and less discoverable. And if everything is private, it will be harder for the media to find, for example, anti-Semitic content to showcase in an article. Harder, but not impossible. This won’t mean the end of hoaxes and misinformation, unfortunately. Other countries, particularly India, have major issues with large, disparate WhatsApp groups being used to spread hatred and fear. Progress is never perfect, but action beats inaction.
The rise of messaging apps does not mean social media will disappear completely; it’s likely Twitter’s loyal audience will stay put. What we already see is the rise of messaging apps being accompanied by the continuing popularity of “Stories” as a format. “Stories,” if you’re not familiar with them, are vertical full-screen photos or videos that last for 24 hours. They’re available on all of Facebook’s services and are cropping up in more and more places, including email newsletters. Like the traditional newsfeed, they allow users to share updates with their friends and followers. Unlike newsfeeds, they are real-time, not permanent and do not have any public commenting or sharing functionality. Your friends can “like” your post, but only you know about it. “Stories” is already hugely popular, with 500 million people a month using the functionality on Instagram, and we expect them to continue to grow and proliferate.
No more newsfeeds, but more messaging and more “Stories” – that’s scenario one. For businesses, this means less publicly-available data and less opportunity for “one-to-many” broadcast messages. It will require communications plans to be smarter, more targeted, and to use more ambassadors to reach their target audiences. Smart, precise and authentic messaging will rule the day.
Scenario Two: De-Socialized News
Most traditional media outlets are not fans of big tech. You only need a cursory glance at The Guardian or The New York Times to see this. Facebook and Google are significant players in the digital advertising market (and Amazon is making big gains here), and plenty of media owners feel as though they’ve been unceremoniously elbowed off the pitch. After prioritizing distributed content and ‘pivoting to video’ in 2017, large swathes of the media are re-thinking their use of social media as their primary means of reaching audiences.
Publications such as Buzzfeed, Bloomberg, Vox Media and The Atlantic are prioritizing owned channels over everything else. Newsletters, podcasts, onsite video, exclusive reader events, subscriber-only access – anything and everything that brings readers closer to the organization and increases the likelihood a reader converts into a subscriber. Social media, while still used extensively by consumers to share and read news, is becoming less of a primary platform for publications.
The appeal of D2R (direct-to-reader) channels for publishers is pretty self-explanatory. D2R channels provide better control over targeting, more opportunities for personalization and (crucially) also means that media keeps 100 percent of the revenue. And anything that can be monetized is being monetized – newsletters, podcasts, videos and events.
While the most prominent drivers of de-socialized news are definitely media outlets and publishers themselves, the move is inextricably linked to the trends we outlined in scenario one. Fewer people using newsfeeds means fewer potential readers of articles shared via those means; publishers will need to adapt to the new landscape of messaging and “Stories.” This will be an adaptation not just of channel planning, but also of content itself. Attention-getting tactics that work well in-feed won’t necessarily work on WhatsApp and will probably need to be re-formatted for “Stories.” We’re already starting to see examples of publishers exploring these new channels today; “Social Chain” is a popular WhatsApp-based social media news outlet, delivering daily updates in short, digestible bites. “Stories” has been enthusiastically embraced by everyone from The Economist to Bloomberg, while former Vogue deputy editor, Emily Sheffield, went one step further and setup an Instagram-only outlet; her outlet, #ThisMuchIKnow has 10,000 followers and uses “Stories” as its primary news delivery vehicle.
For brands and businesses, the advent of de-socialized news will mean that the popularity of coverage will be less immediately visible. It will also likely result in an increased importance on telling stories across a multitude of formats and working closely with media outlets to develop this content. A video pumped out indiscriminately will become less effective, than, say, a guest-newsletter and a special one-off podcast appearance. It means media outlets will have a better steer of where their audiences are and how best to reach them – advantageous when it comes to the precision targeting and tailoring of messages. Again, sophistication is going to be the order of the day in this new world. The world of de-socialized news could also be a litmus test for the concept of the filter bubble; if news is less prevalent, does that mean we’ll seek out more information from a wider variety of sources? Or, will it prove that social media just exacerbated pre-existing preferences for certain news outlets?
Scenario Three: The Artisanal Internet
In many ways, the future of the internet resembles its past. Like wider sociopolitical trends, we often look back on what came before with rose-tinted glasses. For example, forty-one percent of British people “think things were better in the 1990s.” We struggle to see a compelling way forward, so we revive what we remember enjoying.
You can see this in the return to prominence of newsletters, in the excitement around podcasts (a term first coined in 2004) and in the incipient rise of the “artisanal internet,” a movement away from a handful of large platforms dominating online discourse, and a shift toward smaller, more bespoke spaces for conversations to thrive.
Look at the popularity of “Facebook Groups” – more and more people use “Groups” to get together to discuss topics of interest and (importantly) to organize real-world interactions. Groups tend to organize around geographies (people living in a specific locale) or around a singular shared interest. In a similar vein to the rise of group chats, the rise of multiple member groups helps groups of individuals come together and seamlessly adapt to the subjects of discussion. This is another macro trend across all three of our scenarios: the primacy of human curation. Group admins, like forum admins of old, tend to be passionate and dedicated to their flock. They decide on the terms of engagement and police the discussion accordingly. The challenge for social media companies is creating a set of rules that is broad enough to satisfy the whole world; an almost impossible task. Smaller groups set their own rules; you either abide by them, or you go elsewhere.
“Discord” is an increasingly popular platform that also invokes the spirit of the early internet. Originally founded to make it easier for the gaming community to communicate, Discord is becoming the place for YouTubers and other “creators” to engage with their fans. Discord is like Slack for consumers, or a more private forum. Users setup a ‘server,’ which then has public or private channels, private messaging and the ability for the server admin to designate a variety of different roles to users. This is another example of a human-controlled, human-curated platform with specific rules of engagement for group members.
The artisanal internet, while looking back to the past for its inspiration, isn’t weighed down by its nostalgia. It’s a positive place, a place where like-minded individuals are taking responsibility for their communities, both real and virtual. It’s diffuse but dedicated.
This no doubt poses challenges for businesses. Firstly, promoting branded content to a consumer audience won’t be as simple as ‘putting some spend on Facebook and Instagram.’ Brands in particular will have to be smarter and more precise with their digital targeting (there’s a theme developing here). It will also mean that digital monitoring for all businesses will need to improve its breadth and move beyond pulling in social media KPIs alone. A greater emphasis will be placed on identifying where audiences, stakeholders and key opinion-formers are active – particularly for CEOs and other senior leaders who are active on social. We won’t be able to assume that LinkedIn and Twitter will cover all bases; profile building will become more multi-faceted, with a bigger focus on narrative and engagement.
It also presents an opportunity for businesses. More artisanal, dedicated communities will be more likely to want to work with interesting and relevant companies, which could lead to deeper, longer-term and more mutually beneficial relationships; the opposite of one-off transactional interactions.
So, where is the internet going next? Based on our analysis, we’re characterizing the future of the internet as a refraction from the past 30 years. A change of direction, but not a complete reimagination. A reboot typified by more personal, private interactions, with a continued taste for the ephemeral, and an attempt to replicate the early days of the internet and revive some of the joy that came from those early explorations of smaller, more tight-knit communities.
It’s a return to heterogeneity, after 15 years of rising homogeneity. Connecting the world in large, common spaces started out as a beautiful, libertarian dream. The dream turned sour as everything started to look the same, as what was trending came to rule. We’re realizing now that what is trending is not the same as what is important. We’re learning that the crowd isn’t always wise. As a result, we’re reclaiming our heterogeneity, within the existing framework of the World Wide Web.
But this process isn’t going to be smooth and seamless. Our first 30 years of global interconnectedness have been a wild ride, with as many ups as downs. There’ll be plenty of further twists and turns to come. But the opportunities are there for the most agile and switched-on businesses to take advantage of humankind’s continued propensity to share, to connect and to build. The internet and digital communications are fundamental to our lives; we’re not going to give them up easily. We’re just going to be smarter about how we use them.