Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are not social media platforms

Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are no longer social media platforms. Yes, it’s true. TikTok never was, and both Instagram and Facebook have followed their path in a quest for growth.

Which begs the question, how are you defining social media Mary?

Connecting friends & family

Social media, when it first began in the mid 2000’s was indeed social. It was about connecting you to friends and family.

Over time, other bits of content made their way into the feed. First it was news, then it was sponsored content and ads. The business machine of social media has been driven by finance and quarterly results, ever since platforms went public. The drive for profit dictates the feed, with everything focused on keeping eyeballs there, to be able to serve up paid content.

Enter discovery content

That quest continues, and in the face of rising competition from TikTok, Facebook and Instagram have gone all in on discovery-based content.

Have you noticed people showing up in your feed you don’t know? Have you noticed content that may or may not interest you – sometimes leaving you to scratch your head and ask, “why is this here?” That’s the discovery algorithm at work. In theory it should put content in your feed that reflects your interests.

Why the change?

Discovery serves up stuff the platform thinks we will find entertaining or valuable, because in doing that, we will spend more time, and when we spend more time in the feed, they can serve us more ads. It’s the cold hard truth.

Instagram reels is basically TikTok 2.0. TikTok has a crazy accurate algorithm that manages to show content based on your profile and what you have engaged with in the past, which is what makes the app so addictive. Instagram, in their quest for growth (or more accurately, an effort to stop the hemorrhaging of users shifting to TikTok), has gone all in on reels and discovery. It has become a vertical first platform of video, and is no longer a photo first platform it once was.

YouTube & Pinterest are different

YouTube and Pinterest never were social media. They were visual search engines, where people gathered to learn or be entertained. You could argue that YouTube is playing the discovery game too, lead by their newest for of content – YouTube Shorts, not unlike TikTok videos and IG reels. But at its heart, YouTube is a search engine for learning and entertainment. And being owned by Google, allows them to show up in SEO search like no other platform.

Pinterest is undeniably visual search. It’s one of the only platforms that doesn’t penalize for taking viewers out of the feed with website links. In fact it encourages it with their primary product – visual pins linked to content.

So if Facebook and Instagram are no longer social media, what does it matter?

It just signals a shift away from connecting as the primary focus, to discovery of content of interest. On some level that’s more intuitive, since it feeds human nature to engage with content in interest areas.

How the change impacts you

But the very thing that has fueled social media success in the past – the number of followers, now matters a whole lot less, if at all. I would argue the number of followers is soon to be relegated to a vanity metric in terms of real value. What will matter more going forward is the ability to create content that will engage and hold an interested audience. And increasingly, the shift is towards short form vertical video.

Call it the TikTok effect. Welcome to social media going into 2023!

Of course this might be a bit of an over simplification, but it’s a shift that many content creators have yet to acknowledge in their strategies. And I haven’t even addressed what change could look like at Twitter (Elon anyone?) of how LinkedIn as the steady eddy might be the dark horse in it all.

Mary Charleson

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