And just like that, we’ve reached the final issue of the year — and also, somehow, the decade. As is tradition around here, let’s close out the year with some predictions from you about where platforms and democracy are headed in 2020 and beyond.
Thanks to everyone who contributed. Here are your thoughts, along with some of mine. This year, I’m ordering these in roughly how likely I think they are. So, the most likely things to happen at the top, and we move further into crazy town as you scroll down. Generally speaking, I feel more comfortable predicting product moves than policy shifts. But we’ll see!
Social platforms continue to struggle with disinformation and its consequences. An obvious point, maybe, but Blake Bowyer makes it in a compelling way. He argues that Facebook’s decision not to fact-check political ads leads to misinformation campaigns and their awful second-order consequences, such as Pizzagate. Facebook is going to get beat up every time a major politician lies on its platform in 2020 unless — until? — it reverses its policy. (Joe Albanese, a former Facebook employee himself, predicts the company will do just that.)
Metrics keep going invisible. Instagram reportedly ditched like counts because it led to people — particularly young people — posting more. If that proves true elsewhere, expect more metrics to disappear in 2020, reader M.D. predicts.
The flight from feeds to curation. Algorithms fade a bit into the background in 2020 as human editors return to the big aggregators. They’re already working on Facebook’s new news tab, on Apple News, and on editorial teams at Twitter and Snap. Even Google says it is beginning to take into account the quality of original reporting in its suggested news stories. All of this is welcome, even if feeds still command the lion’s share of attention.
The next big social network is email. Newsletters are the new websites, and expect to see communities growing up around them in interesting new ways, led by companies like Substack. Allen Ramos predicts that the rise of newsletters — and, I’d say, of subscription-based media generally — will contribute to a new divide between those who see ads and those who pay to avoid them.
A deepfake app goes mainstream in the US. Depending on how you think about that viral Snapchat aging filter, one arguably already has. But Ben Cunningham (ex-Facebook) predicts some machine-learning-based video editing app will take off in 2020, with its features eventually coming to the Instagram camera. Feels like a solid bet.
Splinternet happens. We’ve talked before in this column about how the internet is quickly dividing into zones. There’s an American internet, a European internet, and a Sino-Russian-authoritarian internet, and they all appear to be rapidly pulling apart. Jason Barrett Prado predicts that this trend accelerates in 2020, limiting the potential size of any one social network.
Discord goes mainstream. The gamer chat network is already popular among young people — and journalists who now routinely find white supremacist networks and criminal gangs using it. Reader Ian Greenleigh predicts Discord will have a big 2020 as giant everyone-in-the-same-room social networks lose favor and “the interest graph moves underground.”
Oculus will finally take off — thanks to Twitch. Cunningham also suspects that streamers will gravitate toward the blue ocean of virtual reality, where Facebook’s Oculus Quest is arguably the best of breed. Streamers will draw audiences, who will buy Quests to see what all the fun is about. As Cunningham acknowledges, this prediction might take a few extra years to come true.
The debate over Section 230 hits a stalemate. Just as Congress couldn’t reach consensus on a national privacy law in 2019, they’ll stumble over how to alter the Communications Decency Act in 2020. Andrew Hutchinson predicts Congress will legislate the removal of “misinformation,” but that seems unlikely (and, perhaps, unconstitutional) to me.
The next big policy fight is over location data. With increasing attention being paid to the expanding surveillance networks created by our smartphones, reader Dan Calacci predicts location becomes a hot topic among regulators.
TikTok gets serious competition. Matt Navarra predicts we’ll see a rash of new short-form video apps take off, including Byte and Firework. Add that to ByteDance’s list of challenges in America next year, along with skeptical regulators and a churning customer base.
Slack will become the target of coordinated investor shorts along with a big expose on business practices, reader H.B. predicts. Certainly it seems some companies are reconsidering how they use the platform in light of recent cases where executives were embarrassed by their messages becoming public.
Libra fails to launch. The beleaguered Facebook cryptocurrency project struggles to get off the ground in 2019 as regulators continue to hate it, partners continue to leave it, and Facebook itself decides to save its powder to fight government battles elsewhere. (Calacci predicts it will launch.)
Wilder ideas. Beth Becker says: “Facebook will unleash at least a few of the following: an actual podcast platform, paid music streaming and I still think that instant articles will eventually turn into some kind of platform for magazines and even books for long-form reading.”
A reader who asked to remain anonymous predicted that a European Union country would fund a public social network.
Question marks. Do regulators seek the breakup of Facebook or Google? Will the various ongoing privacy-related investigations lead to any meaningful changes among the platforms? Will Facebook’s oversight board emerge as a true justice system for a social network? Will Libra actually launch? Will the platforms adequately defend against election challenges? What challenge that no one is thinking about will emerge and surprise us all?
No one really had any sharp guesses about those subjects, and to me the answers are basically a coin flip. For our final prediction of the year, we turn to Galen Pranger: “Until Trump is out of office, the psychological impact of his presidency will continue to drive an especially negative narrative about the social impacts of the Internet and social media. A Democratic win next year will help stabilize some of the media pressure on the industry.”
I certainly hope we find out!
Thanks to everyone who read, shared, and responded to The Interface this year. I got to meet so many of you in person this year at live events and conferences, and heard from dozens more via email. It’s a privilege to write four columns a week for some of the smartest and most thoughtful people in the industry. Zoe and I have big plans in 2020, and we look forward to you following along with us.
So thanks again, and happy holidays. We’ll see you back here on January 6th.