Social networks seem like they are stronger than ever but in ten years they will be as little used as the web directories from ten years ago. In the future it will seem a dusty old experiment and here is why:
AI chatbots will only get more advanced and able to simulate human conversation more realistically. Imagine one that can engage in the average trolly conversation on reddit, it isn’t the highest bar to reach. Now imagine thousands of them each talking like a grand choir drowning out any individual voice.
That is the future and there isn’t much to be done about it. Perhaps better bot detection can help a bit but as long as one human can do the bot tests for them then a paid troll can multiply their posting power by 100+ times. Hiring ten people to talk online doesn’t seem all that attractive, but imagine hiring 10 people to enable AI chatbots to do 10,000 posts a minute. Suddenly you can guide the online conversation completely with a comparatively tiny investment.
I believe this will all happen in stages. The first group to run the chatbots will seize the greatest advantage but they will quickly be met by competing interests that will run their own chatbots. Undoubtedly social media companies will complain and chastise the companies and countries they find engaged in this practice but the results will be too significant for such things to matter.
Then the knowledge that these chatbots exist will spread among the common user and this is likely to be the killings blow for much of today’s social media. Imagine not knowing if you are talking with a human or an uncaring bot. I don’t believe that many people will find engagement in these discussions. The people they are argue with may not exist while the people they agree with could just be convenient phantoms. There are frequent complaints even now about the idea of companies controlling the narrative online with paid contributors and accusations that countries like Russia run massive troll farms. Once this is a confirmed and common reality then people will lose all confidence in most social media environments.
Some social media setups will undoubtedly be hit harder than others. Open forums of millions of people are likely to become meaningless first. They cannot do much against such an onslaught beyond bot detection without fundamentally changing the nature of their platform. Others like Facebook might survive as local chat programs used only between people that know each other but the ambitions for anything more will be cut off. Everything is likely to have a popularity limit, as soon as say a social media page gets beyond a few thousand users then the bots will come. Even reviews are likely to be impacted by this. Things like google reviews will need to be well validated or they will quickly become meaningless. Many business owners would not succumb to paying someone on Fiverr to swamp competitors with negative reviews but really it only takes a few to ruin the system for everyone.
Stringent identity evidence could be demanded and this would prevent bots but it has its own problems. Regulations in many countries would make it illegal to collect such information and there really isn’t the prerequisite level of trust for any company to do this effectively. These chatbots will also make people more protective of their privacy than ever. Chatbots are perfect devices for scammers as you can send them out to converse with thousands of people and convince whoever they can to send money. A duped person might find themselves introduced to an entire social network that will seem like a group of friends but in fact is just a collection of chatbots pretending to have personalities.
Maybe this can be for the best though. Social media is often found to be a harmful influence on people’s emotional state. People often get invested in it and can spend countless hours on it. I myself have been guilty of this. The social media sites that currently exist might end up as tombs with the undead presence of thousands of bots fighting over the ever dwindling amount of users. Until the advertisers stop seeing any engagement and the final plug is pulled, ending the sites altogether.
New social media might develop out of this and it will likely be based on trust relationships. Just as Facebook will be somewhat protected, perhaps closed networks will exist that are based on networks of personal trust. Possibly existing members will vouch for each new one or photo evidence will be required. A cycling community could require photos and an article about a person’s favorite bike. Communities of makers, crafters and hobbyists might be most protected as they could make membership depend on submitting designs or projects that are well received by the community. Even these groups will live with the threat of advanced chatbots though as it will always be possible for a user of these more exclusive communities to sell their membership for short term gain. A new job may form around getting consistent access to such communities.
However these new social networks will look, it is likely to be far more exclusive and far less anonymous than previous incarnations. It may be that such an environment is not even all that successful and the internet will move away from a medium of social communication. Perhaps overall people will welcome the change and find new paths forward into the future.