The end of social media

Does social media have a shelf-life?

Social media is on borrowed time. Not the platforms themselves of course (though no media is permanent or fixed), but the term social media. Like the media it seeks to describe, the lexicon is open to change. It might seem well established but the question is when the label social media will stop serving any real purpose, sliding steadily out of use. Perhaps this moment is getting close.

The point of the term social media is to differentiate a certain set of media from other media forms. It captures a set of shared properties that demarcate a particular set of media. This list of properties is getting ever longer and is not now limited only to things that might be understood to be distinctly social media.

As media converge or change, it may be that the term will adapt or be sidelined. If it is no longer doing the work of differentiation, then the term may no longer feel necessary. As more media take on the properties of social media or as people spend more time occupied with types of media that might fall into this category, differentiation becomes more difficult. In many cases individuals may almost exclusively be using social media, very infrequently spending time with other media forms. This familiarity and prominence may mean that these will just become media rather than needing their own dedicated or discrete label.

On top of this, the term social media is acting as an umbrella for more and more things with ever wider functions and properties. It is a label that includes a wide-range of things. What social media platforms do is expansionist, hoovering up functionality and adapting to incorporate successful features from other platforms. So the term may also just become too broad to be of much use. As well as not really differentiating media effectively it might also end up becoming too cumbersome and too general to be of use.

From around 2005 through to around 2010, Web 2.0 was perhaps the prominent term for describing the emergent user-content focused sites that were emerging and growing (social networking sites was another short-lived descriptor). Web 2.0 never quite settled in, acting only as a sort of placeholder. It felt quite temporary. During that period, Web 2.0 also revealed a struggle for a terminology that could appropriately incorporate a broad set of unfolding developments. It didn't last all that long. Perhaps it sounded too technical or maybe it just wasn't descriptive enough of what was happening. Social media has stuck better, largely because the concept of the social seemed to capture the interactive nature of these spaces.

The terminology being relied upon can itself reveal the broader tensions and wider sense of a need to solidify or find comparable properties across changing media forms. Web 2.0 was representative of the search for a way of describing what seemed like a fairly sudden shift. The term social media has settled into place - which perhaps reflects how social media themselves have become established - but this doesn't mean it will stay indefinitely. It will have a shelf-life.

I've noticed already that it gets shortened down in snappier references to “the socials". This might be an early indication of the terminology changing and that the term is already less functional, or perhaps there is a building sense of redundancy of the full phrase. It may be that this abbreviation is a small sign of the early stages of transition. Popular terms can also be subject to fashion and trends, and so it may be that the term social media might also just be seen to have become awkward or out-of-date. Like any fashion item, what was once seen as timely can quickly feel out of place.

As they become the most dominant form of media, the label social media seems likely to fall away. The question then will be whether it will just be called “media” or if a new label or terminology will come. Maybe, as social media (as we currently call them) continue to proliferate and expand, there might be a series of categories that will take its place - allowing different forms to be identified and spoken of. A range of terms might replace the bigger umbrella. It seems most likely that they will just come to be thought of as ordinary media in the not too distant future. Where the early search for a terminology to describe changing media eventually solidified as social media, the deep establishment of these changes in everyday life may now also mean that such differentiation no longer serves its purpose.

Once media become like social media then the term is no longer of much use. So too as the social becomes more like social media the term may seem increasingly irrelevant. On one hand social media just become media, on the other hand social media just become the social.