The 30th anniversary of the launch of the World Wide Web (thank you, Sir Tim Berners-Lee) seems a propitious time to look at what’s likely just ahead for WWW’s most influential, if sometimes problematic, offspring: social media and video.

The sector has thrived over the past dozen years or so, fueled by the growth of smartphones, self-absorption, and near-universal internet access. In the Donald Trump years, it was further boosted by endless political theater, and resulting pro and con conversations, about one of its biggest (ab)users.

Now, despite Trump’s efforts to ignore the harsh realities of basic math (about which he’s still tweeting), we seem to be moving into a new era, and perhaps a reckoning with the influence and impacts of social media in our lives.

Presuming (and it’s a slightly uncomfortable presumption at this point) that the political transition happens as it has happened for the past nearly 230 years, what’s next? I’m expecting splintered audiences and platforms, more regulation, new players, and almost certainly more siloed conversations that will encourage more conspiracy-mongering and challenges ahead.

Twitter gets new challengers

First up: big changes in Twitter, as some slice of its audiences flee to upstart platforms. Parler has become a go-to alternative for conservatives in recent months as Twitter keeps trying to keep a lid on the most wild-eyed and inappropriate commentary on its platform.

Parler isn’t explicitly ideological, but promises no “censorship.” After media called the election last weekend, conservatives headed to Parler in droves, sending the app to No. 1 on both the Apple and Android stores. Also grabbing some love after the election was MeWe, a Facebook competitor that doesn’t collect user data.

But it’s not just the right wing flying the Twitter aerie, especially if Trump heads off himself in coming weeks as I expect, especially if Twitter follows through on its promises to ramp up interventions on his most out-there posts. Kolektiva is launching as a new social-media platform for left-wing activists. We’ll see if progressives feel adequately motivated to move out too.

Speaking of Trump heading off, Axios and others are reporting the looming possibility of the soon-to-be-former president’s least surprising post-election venture, launching his own media outlet to compete with an increasingly less servile Fox News and more out-there conservative outlets such as OANN, Newsmax, Blaze, and Breitbart.

One projection this week suggested a Trump-focused online-only service with wide carriage across the web could generate as much as $1 billion a year. That would be enough to finance a lot of bad real-estate deals, but also promises to further isolate Trump’s conversation to those paying true believers who’ve filled so many of his political rallies, even at the risk of their own health and lives.

I’m guessing Fox News continues to evolve away from the Trump orbit in coming months, while remaining staunchly conservative. More pressing will be how Fox News builds out its standalone subscription service (now projected to have more than 200,000 paying customers watching cooking shows featuring Fox News stars and similar content).

The parent company, meanwhile, is leaning hard into the thriving ad-supported Tubi service that it bought for $440 million last spring. It already has NBC and Fox local news feeds from 25 markets as part of its Tubi offerings, with more to come, I’m told.  As broadcast and pay-TV audiences continue to shrink (or just die off), leveraging AVOD will be an existential issue for Fox.

Online video adds more competition

Meanwhile, the online news business is going to be getting more complex. Both Reuters and Bloomberg said they are launching new online-video services, focused beyond their bread-and-butter business coverage. Those will provide more competition for eyeballs in the middle of the political spectrum. And ViacomCBS‘ long-in-coming Paramount+ service will launch early in the new year, with lots of news and sports to go with the “mountain of entertainment programming” that CEO Bob Bakish keeps talking about.

Thursday was also supposed to be the Trump-imposed deadline for a sale or shutdown of U.S. operations for TikTok, which App Annie just projected is on its way to one  billion users next year, at least if that sale doesn’t happen. It’s possible there are bigger, less murky messes involving billion-dollar startups, but short of WeWork‘s failed IPO, or the Uber debacle a couple of years ago, I can’t think of anything.

For now, the sale to companies controlled by Trump supporters appears in limbo. Courts have interceded on key parts of the process, and TikTok itself has complained that it’s not getting much feedback from the Trump administration. It’s possible the president is focused on other things now that the election is over, and doesn’t care about the art of this particular deal anymore.

But it appears that TikTok’s strategy of continuing to build audiences, advertise that awesome “Dreams” viral video with Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks joining in, and otherwise acting like nothing’s changing is possibly going to pay off, with nothing changing.

TikTok is even hiring away many of the content moderators who worked for Facebook contractors. Perhaps tracking music videos will be less harrowing than the PTSD-inducing mayhem too many moderators had to regularly wade through on Facebook.

Smartly, however, TikTok competitors aren’t slacking off either. Triller attracted former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to its platform, and has cut some other smart deals as it continues to poke for opportunities in countries where TikTok is less ensconced.

Does streaming ecommerce break through?

Streaming e-commerce eventually is going to break through on social media in the United States, probably sooner than later. Just this week, Instagram permanently affixed Shop and its TikTok copycat, Reels, into its navigation bar.

Every other social media site of any size (plus Amazon and Twitch) is trying to figure out how to create “QVC meets Twitch.” If they can compellingly marry live streams, online personalities, and shopping, they may grab a piece of what in China is a vast  sector. Too many companies are trying, hard, for it not to happen in coming months.

We’ll see a lot of post-election postmortems on the job that Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube did in trying to tamp down election meddling, misinformation, and manipulation. They collectively spent many billions of dollars trying to moderate and control the excesses, and likely had only middling success fighting the meddling.
Whatever the postmortems declare, however, there likely will be continued political appetite on both sides of the aisle to change antitrust law, tweak the safe harbor provisions of Section 230, and possibly break up or significantly hobble the tech giants.
I’m dubious that will happen. First, all the tech giants are getting much more politically astute, of necessity, and have the resources to lobby for neutered regulations that will make little impact on their operations.
Second, Republicans likely will retain a bare majority of the Senate (two Georgia Senate seats are headed to runoffs in January, and I don’t see Dems winning both to split the Senate 50-50). An obstructionist GOP majority likely will do little that could make Joe Biden look good, if Mitch McConnell‘s track record under Biden’s former boss is any guide.
At the same time, audiences are likely to gravitate to new platforms, some of them explicitly partisan, further isolating us from each other and from shared experiences.
All this may feel a long ways away from the entertainment content we see from, oh, Charli D’Amelio or David Dobrik or FaZe Rugg. But it’s not.
For the last five years or so, politics has been one of our chief sources of entertainment, though often not in a good way. Now, that may change. What’s much more certain is the business of talking about politics and everything else will almost certainly be more splintered, complicated, and confused. It should be quite a 2021.

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