With so many privacy scandals and disappointed users quitting social media, the future of the platforms that were once meant to foster online relationships is not looking bright. Ironically, it’s become almost impossible to be social on social media, and users are starting to look for new, private ways to connect with their friends and family online. Is social media lost forever, or is there room for innovation to bring privacy back? It doesn’t just depend on the platforms we use: whether we can continue to be social online in the future hinges on our mindset.

We’ve forgotten how to be social online

There’s nothing wrong with the original premise of social media. Humans are inherently social beings. It makes sense for us to want to be social online. We evolved to crave the company of other human beings and that craving hasn’t gone away just because we now live in a digital world and spend hours of our day online.

However, social media platforms are increasingly losing their social element. The focus has shifted from online interpersonal relationships to online brand-customer relationships. A few years ago, our timelines (which now exist only in name, thanks to algorithms) were full of photos of our friends and family. Now, all we see are news, promotional posts by influencers and ads by companies we follow – and ones we don’t.

No matter what our privacy settings say, our social media accounts are not private. By now, most people know that the companies who run these platforms collect and analyze our data so they can sell it to third parties. Thus, data privacy is essentially non-existent.

Social media sites are not the only ones to blame for this lack of privacy. We are actively contributing to it by treating our accounts as public platforms. We behave as if we were a public media channel, broadcasting snippets of our lives to an audience that we don’t know. We have forgotten what we originally wanted from social media, which was to be social online.

There is nothing social about showing off a curated gallery of images or videos we take with our smartphones. There is nothing social about fishing for likes or envying other people for their (seemingly) perfect lives.

What does the future of social media look like?

Every time we talk about how social media is evolving and what it’s going to look like in the future, we do it from the perspective of advertisers. We imagine social media as a perfect machine that makes the lives of brands easier, with even more tools and features to help them market their products and new ways to micro-target customers. Somehow, we seem to forget about what this means for the millions and millions of users that keep social media platforms alive in the first place.

Since users don’t see how social media can evolve in a way that benefits them, many are looking for a way out. Even though the number of social media users is still growing (the worldwide total is 3.8 billion people, an increase of 288 million (9 %) since last year), there is a strong movement to quit social media, headed by a group of Millennials and Gen Zers and privacy-conscious individuals.

Quitting social media altogether doesn’t have to be the solution. Social media platforms may have gone down the wrong path, but that’s not to say that there is no hope for innovation within the social media space. The digital age is here to stay, and if we want to enjoy social media that way that it was first intended, as a social platform, then we have to find new ways of being social online.

The question is whether we can conceive of a different model, one that allows us to be social online on our own terms. Perhaps the innovation that will take us forward, the innovation that we, users want, starts by going back to the basics.

Switching from public to private mode

If we want to start using social media for social purposes, we’re going to need to accomplish two things. Firstly, we’ll need innovative platforms that facilitate this kind of use and are built on a business model that does not rely on ad revenue. Secondly, we as users will need to change our behavior and learn a completely new way of interacting online.

To regain the focus on human connections, new platforms will need to forsake the advertiser-focused, algorithm-driven model in favor of a subscription model – the only way to guarantee privacy and make sure that users don’t become the product.

In order to make the most out of such a platform, we will need to shift our mindset and really think about our motivations for wanting to share something online. It’s time for a reality check. Are we posting that picture because we’re addicted to the dopamine hit of likes? Are we looking for some kind of validation from strangers and people we barely know just because that is what we’ve gotten used to doing?

Or, instead, do we want to use an online platform to keep in touch with our family members and friends, share our thoughts with them, have honest conversations and connect on a deeper level? Do we want to have a private space where we can share company information with our colleagues, talk about sensitive subjects with the members of our support groups or have political discussions freely and privately, just like we would offline?

A private digital world

It’s going to be a massive shift that requires a lot of mindfulness. We will start thinking of these new platforms the way that we now think of messaging apps (even though they are not nearly as private as we think). Our messages will always be directed to a specific group. Every time we post something, we will think about why we’re posting it and who it’s for. We won’t just be blasting content into the world: we will think about who we’re talking to and we will adjust the tone and the contents of our message, just like we would when we talk to each other in person.

This way, the new platforms will become extensions of our offline social lives. We won’t have to worry about eavesdroppers or prying eyes. Our online family photo albums will be just as safe as they are on our bedside tables. Our children will be just as protected when texting their friends as they are when they’re chatting in the schoolyard. The members of our church group will be able to express themselves online just as openly as they would at a meeting.

This imagined private digital utopia can become the new reality.

When we start using truly private platforms, we will be able to communicate online just as privately as we would behind the closed doors of our offices or bedrooms.

The possibility of a private digital world starts with our mindset. Let’s start changing our behaviors and earning ourselves a better online experience.