Pressure is mounting on social media platforms. Privacy was the first front to open up but it is just that, the first. Social media companies are so high profile (and rich) now that they are obvious targets for all sorts of entities.
Politicians love criticising them, they are easy to criticise. Tax authorities love trying to tax them but they are a lot less easy to tax. Law enforcement agencies want access to what they know and they are, so far, holding their ground on that score.
Now, a third front has opened up that plays right into one of the highest profile issues of our time.
In the UK, mental health organisations are asking why Twitter, Facebook et al will not share data that will allow them to properly assess the effect of social media (the pressures, politics and bullying that are intrinsic to it) on young people.
On the face of it, you can see no reason for them to refuse. Except perhaps that what the algorithms and data will reveal will put even more pressure on them to change how they operate. It might expose the extent to which platforms manipulate online behaviour.
There is, of course, another, more subtle front opening up in the wars over social media. The customer, the user, is changing how they use social media and they are taking control. They are also the biggest, most effective army in the fight to make social media social again.
Facebook has just announced that it is not going monetise WhatsApp through advertising. Quite right too, the company will follow the examples of Tencent et al, who use gamification and services right inside the app rather than blunt, in your face advertising. It is also doesn’t help that platforms such as WhatsApp are encrypted, end-to-end, so extracting proper personalised data that can drive advertising is well nigh impossible.
Users’ behaviour is also changing. Sharing content with, well, anyone who might care what you had for lunch is diminishing. Private circles are growing, private and family groups on WhatsApp and other platforms are the norm. Young people are probing and testing smart speakers and other devices to find out whether they can trust them, whether they tell the ‘truth’.
Ultimately users are now in control in shaping ‘their’ social media.
And if the big platforms do not respond and take the lead (probably sacrificing a large chunk of advertising revenue along the way) they could lose this battle and possibly the war.