Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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The year 2021 in social media

The past year has shown that lawmakers around the world are losing patience and many social media tried to court creators with new tools and funds

Social media was often the main topic in 2021. Unfortunately, this was mostly because of scandals, including the Facebook revelations caused by leaked documents from whistle-blower Frances Haugen. 

There were also some fun stories. Twitter and LinkedIn killing their unpopular story feature, and job service addition on TikTok are some of them.

2021 was also the year when Facebook, Twitter and other players decided to invest in the creator economy by building or acquiring newsletter platforms. The biggest stories regarding subscriptions I have covered in The Year 2021 in subscriptions and memberships.

Also, there was a lot of news regarding live social audio in 2021, the rise and fall of Clubhouse, Twitter successfully cloned it as Twitter Spaces and integrated it into its platform and also Facebook introduced its version – Audio Rooms (which apparently only Mark Zuckerberg uses). I covered everything audio-related in The wonderful year of 2021 in podcasting.

January 2021

Twitter permanently banned Donald Trump’s account after citing ‘risk of further incitement of violenceThe lifetime Twitter ban came after the president incited a mob that broke into the US Capitol building, disrupting Congress’ certification of Joe Biden as the President-elect. The Washington Post has the inside story of how the decision was reached. In response to the Oversight Board, Facebook suspended Trump’s account for two years and it will only be reinstated if conditions permit.

Axios put together a list of all the platforms that have banned or restricted Trump: Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Apple, Discord, Pinterest, Amazon AWS, Stripe, Okta, Twilio.

An army of traders on the Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets helped drive a meteoric rise in GameStop’s stock price. GameStop has become a popular play among short sellers, who are basically investors thinking a stock will go down. GameStop’s stock price has skyrocketed thanks to redditors driving the price up via the Robinhood app. CNBC personality Jim Cramer called the GameStop drama the “squeeze of a lifetime.” One of the WallStreetBets moderators told Wired: “It was a meme stock that really blew up.” The whole drama ended up before the US Congress where Robinhood founder had to defend the decision to halt trading in GameStop shares. Vox has a very good explainer of the whole story.

February 2021

Facebook had banned all users from sharing links to Australian news sources. Also, Australian users were not allowed to share any news links, Australian or international. It simply did not work. Less than a week after suddenly banning news links for Australian users and shutting down Australian news pages to protest an upcoming law, Facebook said it’s gotten reassurances from the Australian government that it won’t be forced to pay publishers but will instead be given the chance to negotiate agreements with them. The turmoil happened after Australia passed the controversial News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining that forced Facebook and Google to pay for news. Vox has a good explainer

Fake Famous premiered, an HBO documentary exploring the meaning of fame and influence in the digital age through an innovative social experiment. The documentary follows three Los Angeles-based people with relatively small followings as they become famous influencers by purchasing fake followers and bots to “engage” with their social media accounts. A review by the New Yorker.

How social networks got competitive againJournalist Casey Newton documented Facebook’s surprising new challengers in audio, video, photos, and text.

March 2021

Microsoft was in talks to acquire Discord, a messaging platform for gamers, for more than $10 billion. The deal fell through in April. Discord reported over 140 million users at the time.

The leaders of Google, Facebook and Twitter faced sharp questions about misinformation’s role in the attack on U.S. Capitol and the mental health of young users. Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai were questioned for roughly five hours. Here is a summary by The New York Times.

April 2021

LinkedIn confirmed to TechCrunch that it was developing its own version of Clubhouse. Eight months later the feature is nowhere to be seen.

Executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube testified before Congress about the ways their algorithms influence users and sometimes serve harmful misinformationCNBC has the highlights.

May 2021

TikTok launched a job service for Gen Z. Axios was the first to report on the pilot program, in which users can post a TikTok video resume to a special site accessible via the TikTok app rather than a traditional resume. The idea is for users to give an elevator pitch or work experience summary via the video in a unique way. Users can choose to make the video also public on their profiles.

Twitter acquired news tech startup Scroll and it is yet another sign of how social networks want to build a creator economy business. Scroll users paid a monthly fee for access to websites they already use but they were without ads. Scroll then split the revenue with publishers. Later in the year, the service became part of Twitter’s subscription offering – Twitter Blue (more on that below).

Instagram let users hide likes to reduce social media pressure. In its testing and research, Instagram said that removing likes had little impact on behavior or wellbeing – after concerns that using the platform could be linked to insecurity and poor mental health.

An Oxford Internet Institute study also found there was “little association” between social media use and mental health in teenagers.

In the US, 44 state attorneys general sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging him to abandon plans for Instagram Youth. In September, amid the fallout from Facebook Files and scheduled Senate hearings, Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri announced to halt the development of a version of its service aimed at people under the age of 13.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube were deemed all “categorically unsafe” for LGBTQ peopleaccording to a study from GLAAD. It recommended that the platforms revised their algorithms to slow down the spread of misinformation, hire more human moderators and better enforce existing harassment and discrimination policies.

Snap introduced new Spectacles, the fourth-gen glasses with built-in AR displaysThey are still not available for consumers, though. These Spectacles aren’t ready for the mass market, Snap argued. Instead, it gave them directly to an undisclosed number of AR effects creators through an application program online.

June 2021

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021 was released and as always revealed data regarding paying for news in many European countries and gave a strong insight into the shift to reader revenue.

Facebook introduced its newsletter platform “Bulletin”The tool aimed at independent writers has strong Substack-like design vibes and to this day I couldn’t find one paid publication on the platform despite the social giant also promoting its features for creators who want to run a paid newsletter.

Lina Khan, a progressive tech critic was sworn in as chair of the Federal Trade Commission. The agency’s mission is the enforcement of civil U.S. antitrust law and the promotion of consumer protection. One of the cases the FTC has pursued was a complaint against Facebook (Meta Platforms) with the aim to break up the company by splitting off Instagram and WhatsApp. NPR has a good background profile on Khan and  “the New Brandeis Movement.”

Instagram announced it was beginning to test IGTV ad revenue share with a small set of publishersAxios reported. Since then no more information was revealed about the test.

Facebook announced it will start putting ads in Oculus Quest appsThe Verge reported.

Former TikTok employees told CNBC the social media company is tightly controlled by Chinese parent ByteDance

July 2021

The book “An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination” came out. It was written by The New York Times‘ journalists Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. The book covers how Facebook is also mishandling data, amplifying fake news, and spreading hate speech.

CrowdTangle’s team was broken up, NYT reported.

Twitter shutters Fleets, the story-format originally started by Snapchat and used by many platforms today, including Facebook and Instagram. “We weren’t seeing the impact we’d like to see from a big bet, so we’re going to pivot our focus elsewhere,” tweeted Twitter’s head of consumer product Kayvon Beykpour.

YouTube Shorts, a bid to tap into the surging popularity of short-form, shareable clips went globalThe TikTok clone first launched in India in the fall of 2020.

August 2021

Facebook premiered its first-ever paid movie. The premiere featured “The Outsider,” a controversial documentary that explores the creation of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. The movie was live-streamed exclusively on Facebook for $3.99 on August 19, available to users in over 100 countries.

OnlyFans announced it would ban “sexually explicit” material. Then, in a matter of days, the company reversed its decision, announcing in a tweet on Wednesday: “We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change.” The change was brought about, in part, because of the backlash of creators, who were beginning to leave the platform in numbers, NYT reported.

Shopify introduced new in-app shopping experiences on TikTok. Shopify merchants with a TikTok For Business account would be able to add a shopping tab to their TikTok profiles and sync their product catalogs to create a mini-storefront that links directly to their online store for checkout.

Facebook released its first Widely Viewed Content Report (find here). NYT reported it has seen a previous report the company decided to shelve because the most-viewed link was a story claiming a Florida doctor died from the coronavirus vaccine. Facebook in a reaction to the story decided to release it directly.

LinkedIn shuttered LinkedIn Stories. The network said it would integrate it into a new video experience.

September 2021

The Facebook Files, a Wall Street Journal investigation series was first published. Thanks to internal documents from Facebook (now Meta Platforms), leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, WSJ has been publishing explosive reports called Facebook Files. The series described how Facebook was fully aware of the negative impact on teenage users of Instagram, or that its platform was contributing to violence in developing countries, as well as the impact of the company’s platforms on spreading false information, and promoting anger-provoking posts.

TikTok hit 1 billion users. In its earlier years, TikTok spent enormous amounts of money on ads promoting its app to Facebook and Instagram’s billions of users. Among the

Twitter introduced Super Follows, a new way for people to earn monthly revenue by sharing subscriber-only content with their followers on Twitter. Through Super Follows, people can set a monthly subscription of $2.99, $4.99, or $9.99 a month to monetize bonus, “behind-the-scenes” content for their most engaged followers.

Facebook grilled by senators over its effect on children. Members of the Senate’s consumer protection subcommittee admonished the executive, Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, for withholding internal information about how its services hurt young people and for not significantly changing those services to reduce those downsides. Senators accused the company of knowing for years that Instagram, its photo-sharing app, has caused mental and emotional harm.

Facebook together with Ray-Ban introduced the Ray-Ban Stories with dual cameras, speakers, and microphones. They sync with a companion camera roll app called Facebook View, where clips can be edited and shared to other apps on your phone.

Twitter launched Communities, its take on Facebook Groups. They are invite-only. Twitter invited a handful of users to create the first Communities and will let anyone apply to create their own on its website.

October 2021

Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen spoke before Congress. Here are three main takeaways.

Facebook, the company, renamed itself to Meta. The change was accompanied by a new corporate logo designed like an infinity-shaped symbol that was slightly askew. Facebook and its other apps, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, will remain but under the Meta umbrella.

Facebook and its family of apps, including Instagram and WhatsApp, went offline for 5 hours after an internal error. Messaging app Telegram gained a “record” of 70 million new users as Facebook experienced a nearly six-hour long outage across its services, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov announced. Encrypted messaging app Signal also reported gaining “millions” of new users on the same day. Both apps compete mainly with Facebook’s WhatsApp. The Facebook outage crippled businesses and communication around the world.

Google announced it won’t fund sites and Youtube videos that deny climate change. The prohibition applies to commercials Google places online, as well as the websites and YouTube videos that run Google ads. It includes any content that denies human contributions to global warming or treats climate change as a hoax or a scam.

Twitch, the interactive live streaming service used mainly by gamers, was hacked and its source code and creator payouts were leaked. The Amazon-owned platform had bad security practicesNo passwords were exposed.

A consortium of several news outlets was given the leaked Facebook documents by Haugen and the stories based on them were called Facebook PapersNYT offered an inside look at the consortium and Haugen as a source.

The Verge published their annual tech survey: 34 percent said they had unfavorable opinions of Facebook, compared to 29 percent in 2020, and 42 said they had unfavorable opinions of Twitter, compared to 39 percent in 2020. Among people who don’t use Facebook, 43 percent of them are avoiding it because they don’t like how it does business — a jump from 27 percent in the last survey.

November 2021

Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen testified to a European Parliament committee. “The Digital Services Act that is now before this Parliament has the potential to be a global gold standard,” she told European lawmakers.

Microsoft announced it is building a metaverse for work. Microsoft entered the race to build a metaverse inside Teams, a metaverse for businesses. Microsoft is bringing Mesh, a collaborative platform for virtual experiences, directly into Microsoft Teams next year. It’s part of a big effort to combine the company’s mixed reality and HoloLens work with meetings and video calls that anyone can participate in thanks to animated avatars, The Verge reportedStratechery has a good explainer.

Twitter launched its Blue subscription product for users in the U.S. and New ZealandFor $2.99 a month subscribers got access to ad-free articles from more than 300 U.S.-based news sites (integration of Scroll), an undo button, a news-aggregating “Top Stories” feature (integration of Nuzzel), and ad-free articles that will send a portion of revenue back to publishers. 

Jack Dorsey has left Twitter as CEO and its CTO, Parag Agrawal, became the new one. The two best takes on Twitter’s future I read were from Ben Thompson of Stratechcery and Casey Newton of Platformer. Both argue the future is unknown, even though the new CEO has been with the company for more than 10 years, we know he is a crypto fan and has been a longtime advisor to Dorsey.

The Verge profiled Kat Norton, a Microsoft Excel influencer with over a million followers on TikTok and Instagram

Facebook announced it would give eligible creators a new custom link to accept payment directly, a move to circumvent Apple’s controversial 30% cut.

December 2021

Instagram surpassed 2 billion monthly active users (MAUs), CNBC reported. Facebook doesn’t break out Instagram revenue or users in its financials, and the last time it disclosed user numbers was June 2018, when the app topped 1 billion MAUs.

Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, testified before lawmakers on internal research leaked by a whistle-blower that showed the social media app had a negative effect on some teenagers. The biggest news from the hearing was that Mosseri confirmed Instagram will introduce a chronological timeline next year.

NYT revealed TikTok’s algorithm. The Media Equation columnist, Ben Smith, obtained an internal company document that offered a new level of detail about how the algorithm works.

Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth insisted that political and COVID-19 misinformation are societal problems rather than issues that have been magnified by social networks. He said it in an episode of Axios on HBO.

EU lawmakers adopted their version of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) in a plenary vote, formalizing their mandate to enter interinstitutional negotiations on this key piece of digital legislation with the European Council and Commission. The DMA aims to introduce ex-ante obligations for tech companies that have acquired such a significant market power in key areas of the digital economy to play a ‘gatekeeper’ role between other businesses and users.

The Digital Services Act received broad support in the internal market committee, following an agreement brokered by the lead negotiator Christel Schaldemose (more on that has Bloomberg). The Digital Services Act (DSA) will require companies to remove illegal content and conduct reviews of their sites. The DSA is horizontal legislation introducing obligations on content moderation and illegal products and for transparency and accountability for the algorithms used by online platforms.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.