Updated: Jun 26
Social media has been popular for as long as it’s been around, with billions of people active on at least one platform every day. One of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that, with more people having to stay indoors, more and more people turn to instant messengers and social media to keep in touch with friends and loved ones. It’s been estimated that about 55% of the world’s population uses social media and that around 16 new users subscribe to some platform every second. There are hundreds of different social media platforms. From big, well-known names to a lot of smaller networks targeted at very specific audiences like academic researchers, there is surely a platform to fit your needs and tastes. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest names in the social media landscape today.
Just about everyone has at least heard of Facebook. It’s the granddaddy and largest of the social media platforms. Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes in February 2004. Membership was initially limited to students of Harvard University but started expanding to other Ivy League colleges in March that same year. In September 2006, Facebook opened membership to anyone with a valid e-mail address and at least 13 years of age. They reached 500 million users in mid 2010 and one billion monthly active users in October 2012. Facebook has also acquired both Instagram and Whatsapp and has over 2.7 billion monthly active users in 2021. To give a better idea of what that number means, just about one third of the world’s population uses Facebook each month.
People who register on Facebook create a profile where they provide some personal information that can include their email address, physical address and birthday, among others. They can become “friends” with other users, which lets them see each others’ posts. Any user can publish images, photos, videos or text posts which can be seen by anyone or by people selected through several privacy settings. They can also join groups with other users with the same profession, hobby or other interests and quickly communicate with each other using Facebook’s Messenger, which also allows both one-on-one and group audio and video calls.
Facebook is a versatile platform that lets users interact and connect in many different ways. And with its large user base, a lot of your family, friends and acquaintances are probably already on it. But being the largest social network with the highest impact, Facebook has its good share of criticisms and controversies. Some of the controversies are related to content. A lot of users have posted fake news, conspiracy theories, far-right, racist and white supremacist content. They have been accused of being used by terrorist groups for planning attacks and for allowing live streaming of shootings and other violent events. But the main issue that concerns people is related to personal information and privacy. First, Facebook has been hacked several times, compromising personal data, including passwords, of hundreds of millions of accounts. Users can link their email accounts so that Facebook can find which contacts are on the network. But doing so also gives Facebook access to email addresses of people who aren’t there. Facebook collects a lot of information behind the scenes; information that their users haven’t even agreed to provide. People have called Facebook out on this several times and has been under scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission for failing to keep privacy policies for over 10 years. Although Facebook has publicly apologized and changed their terms and conditions several times over the years, the concerns are still there and the issues keep coming.
Almost everybody on the internet has heard of YouTube. It’s a video sharing social media platform created by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim in 2005 and bought by Google in 2006. It is the second most visited website in the world, behind only Google itself. YouTube’s content creators, known as “Youtubers” are uploading 500 hours of content each minute.
YouTube is designed for longer form clips than other video sharing social networks. Any user can upload videos up to 15 minutes long. Users that verify their accounts (usually via a mobile phone number) can upload videos up to 12 hours long and create live streams. Viewers can engage with content by subscribing to other users’ channels, “liking”, commenting and sharing videos.
YouTube has its fair share of controversies and issues. For starters, YouTube lets users upload practically any material they want, including copyrighted or inappropriate content, relying only on users to flag this content, which is then reviewed and taken down. But if no one flags the content, it will remain visible on YouTube. Another big issue is that YouTube recommends content to viewers based on an algorithm that doesn’t treat all content creators equally. YouTube’s algorithm has been frequently criticized for favoring videos from content farms, conspiracy and pseudoscientific theorists over more genuine, smaller content creators. As families turn to YouTube for vlogging about their daily lives, there are rising concerns about child safety and wellbeing. Videos featuring acts of child abuse have been posted on numerous occasions. Other times children have been exposed to videos made with popular characters engaging in inappropriate behavior. There have also been accusations of videos promoting pedophilia, far-right, extremist and white supremacist content.
As for monetization, YouTubers can make money. But it’s not easy. First you need to create high-quality content and publish regularly. Then you have become a YouTube Partner, and that requires you to have at least 1,000 subscribers in your channel. But you don’t get any money from your video views or engagements themselves. Rather, when your content is good and popular enough, businesses will pay YouTube to run ads on top of your videos and this is where the money is actually coming from. Each time a viewer clicks on an ad or watches it for at least 30 seconds, YouTube charges the advertiser. Google keeps 45% of the advertising fee and gives 55% to the content creator. So payment depends on the ads and not on the content itself. A YouTuber’s video can have millions of views, but if everyone skips all ads, then the creator doesn’t make any money from it.
Twitter is among the oldest social media platforms. Twitter’s development began in early 2006, when the board members of podcasting company Odeo, including Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone and Evan Williams held a brainstorming session for new ideas. It’s a microblogging service, mainly created so users could share short text messages (called “tweets”) with their followers. Initially tweets were text-only but could contain links to images or videos on other sites, but native support for media files was added later. The first tweet on the platform was published by Dorsey on March 21st, 2006. The platform’s first popularity boost occurred during 2007’s South by Southwest Interactive with Twitter even receiving the event’s Web Award. There were 400,000 tweets published per quarter in 2007 and 100 million posts per quarter in 2008, a year in which Twitter ranked 22nd among social media platforms. By 2009 they had climbed to third place. The first tweet sent from outside Earth was posted by ISS astronaut TJ Creamer in 2010. Since then Twitter has continued growing, reaching 330 million monthly active users during the first quarter of 2019. Since then Twitter has stopped reporting active users and switched its metrics to monetizable daily active users (mDAU), which are the users that sign in each day on their website or any app that allows displaying ads. According to Titther’s reports, they currently have about 190 million mDAU. In other words, 190 million people are watching ads on Twitter every single day.
Twitter’s main feature is still letting users post tweets which are, according to the developer’s own definition, “short bursts of inconsequential information”. Twitter has been proven to be very effective in delivering short-fast news coverage of ongoing important events like sports championships finals and, particularly the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson river on January 15th, 2009. Tweets have a maximum length of 280 characters (140 for CJK languages) and can also include embedded images and videos as well as links to a user’s website or blogs. Users can create their profiles, follow each other, comment and reply on their posts, share posts with their own followers (“retweeting”) and organize tweets by content using hashtags.
Twitter has the advantage of being very easy to use and that it lets you reach a very broad audience. And while paid ads are available, a lot of businesses and users are doing just great with organic posting and followers, which is absolutely free. On the down side, since there are so many tweets being posted each second, timing is absolutely crucial. If you don’t tweet when your target audience is online, your post will most likely be lost in the flood of other tweets. The 280-character limit can take a lot of getting used to, especially if you tend to be more long-winded when expressing something. Twitter can also be very addictive, as its algorithm will display bits of news and information that are important or relevant to you and will keep you on the platform longer. Finally, options for monetizing your content are very limited. You could publish sponsored tweets or let ads run on top of your content. Maybe drive traffic to your sales page or website. But there aren’t really many options for receiving rewards from Twitter itself for creating high-quality, engaging content.
Tumblr is a microblogging and social networking site founded by David Karp in 2007. It allows users to post content, including text and multimedia, to short-form blogs and follow other user’s blogs. Tumblr quickly rose in popularity, peaking in 2016 with over 500 million monthly visitors. However, Tumblr’s decision to ban pornography and other adult content has led to a decline in the netowrk’s popularity. Monthly visitors had come down to 379 million in mid 2019 and have continued to drop. Their last report shows 327 million visitors in January 2021.
Most of Tumblr’s features are accessed through their website dashboard. It displays a live feed of the blogs they follow and lets the comment, repost and “like” post from other blogs. It’s also the place where users create posts for their own blogs. Posts don’t need to be published the moment they are created. Tumblr lets them queue the posts for publication over several hours or days. An instant messaging function allowing users to chat with each other has been available since 2015 and group chats were introduced in 2019.
Tumblr is fun and easy to use, especially for people who enjoy short-form blogging. But with a smaller user base than other platforms and monthly visits dwindling, you’re not as likely to find your family and friends on it. Tumblr has also had its share of controversies, although concerns about how the platform handles users’ private information are much fewer. Tumblr’s main criticisms concern some user’s using it to distribute copyrighted material, promoting self-harm and suicide and hosting content promoting white supremacism and Nazism. Another criticism was that Tumblr was being used to distribute pornographic and other adult content. Multiple content analyses proved that the platform did contain a high percentage of adult content, which led to Tumblr banning all adult content from the platform in late 2018. Apparently this move wasn’t popular among users, because monthly visits to the site have been in decline ever since.
Snapchat is a multimedia messaging app originally developed by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown. It was originally launched on iOS as “Picaboo” in July 2008 and relaunched as “Snapchat” in September of that same year. The app’s creators wanted to address the problems some people face because of the longevity of people’s posts on social media, too often seeing people untagging themselves or removing potentially embarrassing pictures from their social media profiles the day before a job interview. So they decided to create a messaging app where posted content would disappear after a short time. Typically, these messages (called “snaps”) will be deleted 24 hours after being sent if the recipient hasn’t opened them or up to 10 seconds after they are opened. At first snaps consisted only of still images and could only be sent user-to-user. Video snaps up to 10 seconds long were added in December 2012. A “Live Stories” feature that allows people that are on-site at certain events to contribute snaps to a curated story that can be seen by all users was added in mid 2015. Snapchat has enjoyed considerable growth and is one of the most popular social networks/messaging apps, with around 280 million daily active users all over the world.
Snapchat’s key feature is that snaps are ephemeral. That’s the way it was designed to be from the very beginning. When you send someone a snap, it will be destroyed within a few seconds of it being opened (1 to 10 seconds, depending on the sender’s choice). Even if the recipient doesn’t open the snap, it will still be gone in 24 hours. Snapchat also lets users remix their voices on a snap using Voice Filters, use augmented reality to add several forms of visual effects and stickers.
Snapchat’s main pro is that it’s fun and this is what has made it so popular among the younger generations, especially teenagers. The majority of Snapchat users are aged 12 to 34. Snapchat offers them a less formal, more entertaining way to send messages to family and friends. But the fact that the messages will only be available for a short time often gives users a sense of security that leads them to snap explicit, embarrassing or otherwise inappropriate content. While the snaps themselves will only be available for a few seconds, the app doesn’t prevent recipients from taking screenshots; it only lets the sender know that a screenshot was taken. These screenshots have, on occasion, been distributed publicly, used for cyberbullying or a lot worse. A lot of parents are concerned about what their teens are snapping knowing those photos could very well turn up later.
Whatsapp is another network that doesn’t need much introduction. It’s an instant messaging platform, founded by ex Yahoo! workers Brian Acton and Jan Koum. It was originally launched as a beta version for iOS in February 2009 and fully released in November 2009. Versions for Blackberry, Symbian and Android were released in 2010. Whatsapp reached 400 million monthly active users in 2013 and was purchased by Facebook in 2014 for 19 billion USD. This has been Facebook’s largest acquisition to date. In 2021, Whatsapp is the world’s largest instant messaging platform, available for iOS and Android smartphones and KaiOS feature phones and boasting 2 billion monthly active users.
Whatsapp accounts are tied to the user’s phone number and the app automatically scans the device’s main contacts list to add them to the app’s contact list. Users can send one-on-one text messages as well as photos, videos, stickers, contacts, files, location and other media types. Users can also create and join groups where they can send the same type of messages as in one-on-one conversations. Voice calls have been available since 2015 and video calls since 2016. Since 2018 users can also post statuses (posts available for 24 hours, similar to Facebook Stories).
Its large user base means that almost any compatible smartphone has whatsapp installed. Some even come with the app factory-installed. It’s so common that if you have a friend or family member who owns a compatible smartphone, they will be right in your Whatsapp contacts as soon as you install and set up your account. The app is easy to use and messaging and calls work well. However, it’s not without its share of controversies and problems. First of all, Whatsapp is frequently used for scams and sending malware. Users have used Whatsapp to plan and coordinate terrorist attacks, such as the November 2015 Paris attacks and the 2017 Westminster and Stockholm truck attacks. There have also been concerns regarding privacy and personal data, especially after Whatsapp’s acquisition by Facebook in 2014. In January 2021 Whatsapp announced a change in its privacy policies saying that Whatsapp would begin sharing data with the “Facebook family of apps” and that accepting this policy would be mandatory for everyone who wished to continue using the app. This announcement caused a rapid increase in the number of users in competing apps like Telegram and Signal and has prompted Whatsapp to postpone enforcement of this policy.
Instagram is another service that doesn’t need a big introduction. It’s a photo and video sharing social media platform created by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger in 2010. The platform was acquired by Facebook in 2012. Instagram is one of the most popular social media platforms today, with over 1.2 billion monthly active users.
Instagram’s main focus is photo and video sharing. Photos were initially cropped to a characteristic 1:1 square aspect ratio but support for portrait and landscape formats was added in 2015. Users can quickly edit their pictures by applying any one of several predefined filters. A single post can include up to 10 pictures and/or videos. Simple videos are short-form clips up to 60 seconds long, but can also be published in Albums, which allow up to 10 minutes of video. Users can also post photo and video “Stories”, that are visible for only 24 hours. Instagram also introduced the “Reels” feature in 2019 as competition for Chinese social media network TikTok. Reels are videos up to 30 seconds long with background music from existing sound clips.
Instagram is certainly a fun way for people to share fragments of their lives with family and friends. Being so widely used, it’s likely a lot of your friends are already there. It’s easy to use and works very well. However, it does have its cons. For one, the posts on your feed aren’t sorted chronologically anymore. They are shown according to an algorithm that’s friendlier to some posts. So some of your friends might hardly ever show up on your feed despite them posting regularly. Another concern is security. Instagram has been hacked several times, compromising personal information for several million accounts. Finally, there have been a lot of discussions about privacy and content ownership. Instagram’s terms of service say that they have the right to use user’s photos in ads or receive payments from businesses that want to use those photos in their ads. Basically, Instagram can do just about whatever they want with their user’s content, including selling the content to other companies. And it’s Instagram that’s getting the money here. Not the user who actually created that content.
As for how users can monetize their content on Instagram, there aren’t many options and they don’t include receiving money from Instagram themselves. Users can create sponsored content featuring companies or brands, use their accounts to sell their own products, become affiliates and use their accounts to sell other people’s products or get some revenue by letting companies run ads on top of their content. That’s about it.
Pinterest is an image-sharing social media service founded by Ben Silbermann, Paul Sciarra and Evan Sharp. The platform was launched as a web-based closed beta in March 2010. An app for iOS was launched in 2011; the Android app came along in 2012. Pinterest started out as a social network where people could store their “ideas” (pictures, videos, tutorials, recipes or any other content) either self-generated or from other websites in virtual pinboards. In later years, Pinterest has become more of a visual search engine and e-commerce platform but the original boards are still there. Pinterest experienced a rapid growth in popularity from the very start. They were included in Time magazine’s “50 best websites of 2011” and currently have about 400 million monthly active users.
Pinterest’s core functionality is that users can create virtual pinboards where they can store content that interests them. Suppose a user is in the market for a new smartphone. They can create a board called “New phone ideas” and start searching online tech stores or Amazon for possible purchases, Google and YouTube for unboxings and product reviews. All relevant results can be saved (“pinned” to their board for later study before making the actual purchase. Or home cooks can create their virtual recipe scrapbook. Users can also follow other users or specific boards. Pinterest also has a search engine that allows users to find content matching specific criteria, like “Father’s day gift ideas” and has also incorporated e-commerce features that let users purchase products right from within the app.
Pinterest is a great option for creating collections of the things you see online and sharing anything you make yourself. As a tool for sharing bits of your daily life with your family and friends, not so much. You can use it that way, of course, but other platforms are better suited for that.
Considering it’s one of the most popular social networks out there, it’s had fewer controversies than most of the other big names. The main controversies around Pinterest have been related to distribution of copyrighted material and content ownership. Regarding the latter, Pinterest’s initial terms and conditions stated that any content posted on their site belonged to them and could be shared, modified or even sold. This issue was resolved in April 2012, when Pinterest published new terms of service that eliminated any claim of ownership on posted content.
Telegram is a cloud-based instant messaging service, considered by many to be one of Whatsapp’s main competitors. The client software is free, open-source and cross-platform, with versions for Android, iOS, Windows, MacOS, Linux, Windows Phone and even Haiku. The server-side software is closed-source. The service was created by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov and launched in 2013 (for iOS in August and in October for Android). Telegram has experienced constant and quick growth. They had 100,000 daily active users in October 2013 and had reached 15 million daily active users less than six months later. During January 2021 Telegram reached about 500 million monthly active users while becoming the number 1 most downloaded app worldwide.
Telegram has all the features you can expect in an instant-messaging service: you can send messages, pictures and videos to your contacts and also files up to 2 GB in size. You can create and send messages to groups of up to 200,000 members and any user can also create channels, which are similar to groups but only the channel administrators can send messages. A channel can be linked to a group to allow comments and discussions. Anonymous or non-anonymous polls can be created inside groups. Normal chats are sent encrypted over the net, but aren’t encrypted to Telegram servers. End-to-end encryption is available for “Secret chats” that are started by invitation and where messages can be set to auto-destroy. Sent messages can be deleted for up to 48 hours after sending and can be deleted by any participant for one or both sides of the chat. Telegram introduced end-to-end encrypted voice calls in 2017 and video calls in 2020. Currently, video calls are one-on-one, but Telegram has offered group video calls for later this year (2021). Telegram also offers stickers (both animated and non-animated), bots and voice chat for groups. While accounts are tied to a phone number, users can create a unique user ID that they can send out if they want their number to remain hidden. They have also released public APIs that third-party developers can use to create clients with all the official client’s functionality.
While it’s certainly a good, fast, feature-packed messaging service, it hasn’t gone without controversy or criticism. For starters, end-to-end encryption isn’t enabled on all chats by default; only for secret chats. It has also been criticized for being the messenger used by extreme right-wing movements Jihadists and for distribution of child and teenage pornography. Pavel Durov himself has faced some backlash for defending Telegram’s privacy. In a 2015 interview with TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher, Durov stated “I think that privacy, ultimately, and our right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism.” You can watch the full interview here.
The Rise of Patreon
Social media is incredibly popular and millions of people use content-sharing platforms every day looking for entertaining, educational, informative or inspirational content produced by other users. Many of these users have become so popular, with such a large following and so many people listening to what they have to say, that the term “Influencer” has been coined to describe them. However, most social media networks offer content creators little chance to earn money from their creations, especially for lesser-known creators. In 2013, musician Jack Conte and developer Sam Yam created the Patreon membership platform to address this issue. Patreon allows content creators like YouTubers, filmmakers, writers, musicians, webcomic authors, podcasters and others to receive money directly from their fans (called “patrons”). Patrons can contribute money either in a per-work-of-art manner or by regular repeat payments on their credit cards. Patreon takes a commission of 5-12% of the creator’s income, including payment processing fees. As of 2021, Patreon has over 6 million patrons supporting over 187,000 content creators who are collectively earning an estimated 1 billion US dollars per year. Patreon has proven a valuable tool for a lot of creators, despite some controversies and issues regarding censorship and pages taken down with little or no explanation. There are other membership platforms competing with Patreon. but another form of competition is making its way into the social media landscape: decentralized social media platforms where users can give money to creators directly. There will be more information on that in a later article.