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“Stories to rule the world”: The great social media pivot

Once upon a time, the News Feed took over the world, with Facebook at the helm. Industries were upended, new fortunes were created, and there were grand visions of using its power to connect everyone, and create a global community to make the world a better place.

Then came the barrage of privacy scandals, erosion of user engagement, data mismanagement, misdirection and apathy, with palpable anger on the political front across party lines, and across national borders.

While we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions … seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California,” blustered Charlie Angus, a lawmaker from Canada, during a special international hearing at the UK parliament.

The News Feed had lost its golden touch.

Around the same time, the ominous clouds were getting buttressed by unfavorable data. Social media growth is over in the US, its most valuable market, reported Recode, on analyzing data from Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Pew Research Center also found that social media use in US had plateaued after years of growth.

We’ve hit peak social,” announced Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. “Social media as we know it, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all these … have really in a lot of ways run their course, and we’ve reached the ceiling.”

Zuckerberg didn’t disagree with the numbers and analyses. Obviously he had more in-depth data, well ahead of external observers. Once again, he proposed a pivot.

The CEO of Facebook announced that it’s time for the News Feed, the main stream of content on the social network, to make way for Stories, full-screen vertical videos that disappear in 24 hours.”

“I just think that this is the future,” he said.

The idea of ephemeral messaging, or Stories, was made popular by Snapchat, and later adopted by Instagram, very successfully.

“Launching Stories was the best decision Instagram ever made,” said Kurt Wagner, Senior Editor at Recode. “Stories didn’t save Instagram — it didn’t need saving — but there’s no doubt it super-charged it. Instagram Stories has attracted more than 400 million daily users and changed the way people share and consume things online.”

Facebook is so convinced of replicating this success that it has now made the format available across all its properties: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.

Indeed, Facebook has rolled out its group Stories feature globally, and it had earlier announced that Stories would be extended to events. “Our effort,” Zuckerberg said, is “to shift Facebook from News Feed first to Stories first.”

Suffice to say Facebook has gone all in on Stories.

The Facebook chief, who had blithely declared that privacy is dead, is now singing a different tune.

“Public sharing will always be very important, but people increasingly want to share privately too, and that includes both just smaller audiences with messaging and ephemerally with Stories,” Zuckerberg said.

“People feel more comfortable being themselves when they know their content will only be seen by a smaller group and when their content won’t stick around forever.”

It looks like Stories will be a bigger medium than Feed has been.

Mark Zuckerberg

And it’s not just Facebook that’s repositioning itself, Stories has found eager takers all across the social media landscape.

Two weeks ago, YouTube rolled out Stories to creators with over 10K subscribers. In their case, these are short, mobile-only videos that expire after 7 days.

Three weeks ago, LinkedIn launched it’s own variation of Stories, focused on a younger audience.

At around the same time, Instagram doubled down on privacy, allowing users to share Stories only to a Close Friends list. “Sometimes what you want to share isn’t for everyone,” they explained.

The uptick in Stories is not just a phenomenon confined to the West. Weibo, China’s Twitter and now the country’s most popular microblogging site, is “pushing it hard” on Stories. VKontakte, Russia’s largest social network, has taken it even further, bringing Stories to the desktop too.

There’s an ancient Hopi proverb that goes, “Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

It’s a different kind of global domination the social networks are looking at, though.

While the privacy scandals have taken their toll, the skeletons still keep tumbling out of the closets. It looks like Cambridge Analytica was just the tip of the iceberg. Just this week the New York Times published a detailed exposé on how free apps make money by selling personal data and location history to advertisers.

It’s not just Facebook or social media. The rot runs deeper.

After the special international hearing at the UK parliament where Zuckerberg was represented by an empty chair, US lawmakers grilled Google CEO Sundar Pichai in Congress this week. The duopoly could also face a crackdown in Australia, where the Competition and Consumer Commission published a report on Monday based on its investigation into the influence of US tech giants. And there are calls to take back personal data from Google and Facebook’s server farms.

In other words, it doesn’t look good.

No wonder social media is looking at Stories for a solution. Stories offer a hint of privacy. Stories have data that disappears. Stories offer a break from the past.

Yes, Stories also offer an immersive experience which is fantastic for displaying ads to an audience with ever-shrinking attention spans. But that comes later.

For now, a wholesale movement to a more private experience for users may just be a survival mechanism, with threats looming all around.

Whatever the obvious motivations and underlying forces at work, it looks like Stories are where the puck is going, and publishers need to gear up for this pivot. For better or for worse, Stories could be the new frontier, and it’s the Wild West all over again.

Download WNIP’s new Media Moments 2018 report, which dives deeper into this year’s developments in publishing, and looks at what opportunities 2019 could usher in. The report is free and can be downloaded here.

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