Our latest research reveals the approach of a symbolic “tipping point” in global social media usage.

It’s a milestone that represents a paradigm shift for social media in general.

In 2018, for the first time, our survey shows that internet users log on to social media to stay up-to-date with news as much as they do to stay in touch with friends.

To compare, when we first started asking this question at the end of 2014, staying in touch with friends was 6 percentage-points ahead.

Since 2016, we’ve seen social media’s original purpose of connecting people take more of a backseat, as its role as a source of news content and commentary has come to prominence.

One element underpinning this shift has been the rise of social video, including livestreaming. More users are tuning into these content formats than in 2016, and they’ve helped social media become a go-to place for news.

As personal sharing declines, passive consumption rises.

News is the most important motivation for internet users between the ages of 25-34s and 45-54s to log onto social.

In contrast, 55-64s still see social media as a place to connect with friends first and foremost.

16-24s also value friends over news updates, though both of these are eclipsed by their desire to find entertaining or funny content on social media. Following news might be on the verge of becoming the top social motivation overall, but it’s just one part of a broader picture.

“Purposeful” social media activities have come to the fore in the last couple of years, as personal sharing has become less relevant to internet users.

This is a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “passive networking”. Against this background, social networks are working hard to preserve user engagement – even if it doesn’t involve sharing personal information. 

The growth of “purposeful” activities on social could not have happened without the ascendance of smartphones as the main device for internet access.

Smartphones allow users an anytime, anywhere way of going online. This lends itself to browsing for ephemeral content, whether in the form of funny videos or news updates.

Because 16-24s prefer finding entertainment to news content, this makes them the biggest consumers of social video.

Until recently, this has largely come through consuming bitesize video entertainment. But social platforms are now looking to expand their video offering to include long-form content that can challenge the likes of Netflix and Amazon Video.

This year has seen the launch of Instagram’s IGTV, and the global rollout of Facebook’s Watch. Snap has thrown its hat into the ring too, with a host of original shows planned for the Discover service on the Snapchat app.

Sports benefit from the growth of social video.

Long-form video isn’t unprecedented on social media. There’s a specific type of video that’s made itself at home on social in the past couple of years, and that’s sports.

Citing “watch/follow sports events” as a main reason to use social media has had a significant popularity spike since 2016, increasing by ten percentage points.

The numbers are even more telling when applied to an audience of sports fans. Sports are not universal in the way that general entertainment and retail are, so focusing on internet users with a declared interest helps us uncover the real extent of the trend.

For sports fans, using social media to watch/follow sports events has increased from 16% in 2016 to 41% in 2018.

In the case of sports, we can see up close exactly how social media has moved from sharing-led to consumption-led motivations.

Social media allows fans to exchange their thoughts on the action in real-time. Buying rights to broadcast sports competitions helps social media companies bring more of the sports ecosystem under their control.

This way, social has grown from just providing an arena for real-time commentary into a platform for also watching live broadcasts.

Twitter’s play into sports is a good example of how just much social media has changed. Twitter used to be known predominantly for its brevity, with a limit of 140 characters per tweet. But now, it’s host to full-length matches.

The network has been looking to cement its position as one of the biggest providers of live sports coverage online ever since its first experiments with it during the Wimbledon tennis championships in 2016.

Alongside the deals Twitter has struck up, Facebook and YouTube have been getting in on the act, with Facebook’s deal to broadcast the Premier League in parts of Asia one of the most eye-catching this year.

More and more online behaviors are finding a home on social.

Outside video, more aspects of online behavior are finding a home on social media.

Use of social media to research/find products to buy has grown since 2016, although closing the loop and turning this research behavior into a purchase has proved elusive so far.

Twitter’s experiments with buy buttons ended with their withdrawal, and in our data, “buy buttons” have have not yet gained traction for any social network.

But this may be about to change.

Visual platforms like Snapchat and Instagram are looking to buck the trend. But while both platforms are visual, they’re building social commerce capabilities in different ways.

Instagram’s “shoppable ads” are a type of buy button, but with the benefit of an image-focused interface to help get consumers clicking. For Snapchat, the approach is more about how a phone camera can be used to discover and research products through augmented reality.

Through its partnership with Amazon, Snapchat is currently testing a feature which takes users to a product’s Amazon page when they point their phone camera at it.

Put simply, Instagram’s social commerce is built around interactive images, whereas Snapchat’s comes through interacting with physical surroundings via the camera.

So why does all this matter?

As user growth on social platforms reaches saturation, they’ll be forced to work harder to get revenue from the users they do have. This lets new content types spring up, with the potential for monetization through ads or partnerships.

The social tipping point also brings into focus just how many verticals social is still poised to disrupt, either in competition or partnership.

Social media is no longer a place where internet users go to be social; it’s now a TV set, a shop window, and a source of news, all in one.

You’ve read our blog, now see our platform

Every business has questions about its audiences, GWI has answers. Powered by consistent, global research, our platform is an on-demand window into their world.