An adventure in attention
A chat alert, an email notification, a faint hum of the Barbie theme tune softly trickling away in your head. Distractions are – if you hadn’t noticed – everywhere.
It’s often said that, largely, these distractions are a product of the ever-increasing number of social media apps now available, and the amount of our time they’re vying for on a daily basis to meet their skyrocketing ad revenue targets for shareholders. As the number of apps has grown, so too has the depth of our connection with them. The number of social media users worldwide has more than doubled since 2015, with the figure passing 4.48 Billion users back in 2021.
Users aren’t interacting with only the one platform either. On average, they tend to engage with 6.6 different platforms. Like the hesitation we feel as soon as we open Netflix, with a seemingly infinite amount of options, it’s hard to choose just one.
This influx of different platforms has brought with it a new front line in the fight for attention. An arena shared by advertisers, creators, news corporations and the social media moguls pulling the strings. With the latter, we’ve seen it result in mimicry apps, a swirl of lawsuits and even the proposal of a cage fight between the CEOs of Twitter and Meta.
All of that noise begs the question – where does it leave the audience?
It’s worth looking at the points of differentiation for each network, and addressing what it is exactly that audiences are looking to gain from each channel.
Of course, specific channels have specific functions. Just as Twitter users aren’t popping on to look for job opportunities, Linkedin users aren’t taking part in emotionally charged political debates – for the most part, anyway.
Aside from the more obvious individual functions of each platform, the reasons as to why audiences like using several different platforms is a little more nuanced. To gain more of an insight, we’ve taken a little look at some of the biggest channels and their audiences.
If X is the older sibling, now as angsty as ever in their late teens, Threads is the popular, charming new addition to the family – immediately loved by all and, if we’re honest, more likely to end up successful than open-source favourite, Mastodon, which largely does the same thing.
As a platform, it’s nicked all of the best bits of a highly usable, functional app, and left behind Andrew Tate and his fellow far right extremists, now shouting into a void of other blue ticks…
And it’s done it all in a radical, modern fashion. One look at its fresh, hip branding is enough to make you forget that this is a platform owned and operated by the same corporation as the increasingly outdated Facebook. In its initial inception, audiences flocked towards the shiny new app, with over 100 million signing up in the first 5 days alone. Users saw it as a lifeboat that rocked up next to Twitter’s sinking ship. An easy to navigate alternative.
Its primary offering seems to be tailored towards a more interactive, conversational experience, where users are invited to join the party through individual ‘threads’, and to engage in more detailed discussions than they might elsewhere. It makes a slight diversion from Meta’s usual strategy, which prioritises a good ol’ fashioned doomscroll, and instead reflects something closer to an interest-led platform, such as Reddit. The most similar platform that exists to where Threads is operating right now is Tumblr, and a lot of the discourse on the feeds reflects that.
However, a month on from launch, the teething troubles have started to show. App engagement has reportedly fallen to new lows, with Meta struggling to retain its audience. The daily user rate has fallen by 82%, down to just 8 million users accessing each day, with the average daily user time falling to just 2.9 minutes.
Meta does have plans to add ‘retention focused hooks’ to the app, in a bid to keep users present, but it’s hard to predict where it may all end up. As a platform that intends to offer Twitter users a similar alternative, its success is inevitably chained to Twitter’s downfall. If audiences continue to rely on Twitter to build connections and engage with relevant content, there would be no need for Threads to continue.
Instagram is a big platform for engagement and inspiration. It’s the go-to place for living vicariously; for grabbing parts of people’s lives and melding them into your own socially curated version of reality.
With a highly accessible layout, founded on some of the top features of other platforms, the app is clear and easy to use. Its multiple algorithms are specifically designed to deliver relevant and interesting content, all while keeping out bots and spam, and they tend to work pretty well.
Combine all that with a fair split between what users care about – family, friends, communities, and what users are interested in – relevant brands, celebrities, social issues – and you have a strong formula for an engaged, active audience. A good all-rounder.
The old familiar.
Facebook is perhaps the most obviously well-known platform of the bunch. The old aunt at every Christmas dinner. With an interface we’re all (way too) used to, and an online circle of literally everyone you’ve ever known, Facebook offers us something solid and long-lasting – an antidote to the more impermanent nature of other platforms.
It’s like an ongoing marriage between user and platform that has, if we were to admit it, probably been a little lifeless for a while now. We may not know and love, but at least we know, right?
The OG in short form content (recently at least… sorry Vine), TikTok paved the way for a refreshed type of social media. One that relies upon a stream of short, fast paced video.
It set a precedent for other channels to build upon, and we’ve seen features such as Instagram reels, YouTube shorts, and Snapchat spotlight all follow on from TikTok’s reinvention of the short form.
Users of the app cite its authenticity as a reason to keep coming back. With the majority of content coming from individuals and creators, it’s a platform where users have built a real sense of community and creativity – shown in communal trends and viral challenges.
It’s also an app that celebrates innovation. Its content is unique, and users are able to easily cater their feeds towards their interests. Creatives can showcase their skills and hobbies, and, for the most part, audiences tend to respond warmly.
Unlike some other apps, the intention of audiences choosing to use TikTok is to (ideally) leave feeling uplifted, educated and inspired. And to maybe get some junk from TikTok shop along the way.
Ever since the rise of TikTok and short form content, audiences have developed a need to constantly hit that refresh button. Reddit offers an alternative to this, offering instead, a collection of niche – and non-niche – topics to dive into, on just about anything that might be of interest.
If you want to wax lyrical about the lyrics on a newly released album by your favourite artist, or you want to discuss season 1, episode 7 of a new series with a watch party, Reddit is your place. If you want to discover conspiracy theories, deep-dive into true crime, or ask communities nationally and locally questions about life itself… there’s a text-based place to do so in a subreddit on there.
Groupings on Reddit are highly focused, with a collection of the same, regular contributors building out a community. In a similarly extreme sense to Twitter, however, these groupings can tend towards echo-chambers, where interaction with outside ideas and conversation becomes limited.
Successful advertising on the platform centres around the concept of relevance. By tapping into subreddits that are highly aligned with a target audience, the disconnect between brand and social group is ultimately lessened, and brands have room to become part of that community.
All of these different, competitive apps have monetised the modern attention span, and with a bombardment of constant information, there’s an increasing consumer demand for clarity.
A quick scan of Google search trends shows the extent of this – search terms such as ‘reduce screen time’ and ‘attention span’ have seen a gradual but consistent increase in the last decade. It’s reflected in the growth of the mindfulness industry and, ultimately, it’s the reason why Harry styles can now read you a bedtime story.
The Next Steps
With social media platforms now permeating more areas of our lives than ever before, there’s an enormous potential for growth. And the current paths available could lead to some interesting places.
By claiming a stake in our day to day interactions, social media has already done the difficult bit. The next steps for expansion likely involve areas of our digital life that we’re less connected to – territory previously reserved by food delivery businesses, payment companies and dating apps. Considering his plans for an ‘everything app’, and previous ownership of PayPal, Elon Musk is already part way there.
Such an app would have to contend with a level of mistrust among audiences, which has mushroomed after a multitude of highly publicised and critiqued issues around data, privacy and freedom. Expansion might therefore result in social media generally taking a form that resembles something closer to private chat and discussion, rather than public feeds. The popularity of apps such as Whatsapp and Discord has proven that the audience demand for these spaces already exists. Any increased investment in dialogue-first apps risks a deepening of the enclosed circles currently present online. An echoing of echo chambers, that would affect the ways in which public information is distributed, and have a negative impact on the general public’s trust in reputable, respected sources.
For social media to grow then, we’d need to find a balance – a healthy space between interesting, tailored content and open, unbiased discussion. A task that’s probably easier said than done.
Such a social utopia would provide a near endless number of opportunities – for audiences, creators, brands, businesses, Grandmas and dog influencers. Our understanding of social media could be redefined, and, for the marketing industry, we could connect with audiences in new, more meaningful ways. It’d offer a chance to create deeper community based connections and ground to build a more focused, enjoyable experience for everyone.