12 predictions for the consumer internet in 2021

I like to end each year by surveying you all about your predictions for social networks and the broader consumer internet in the 12 months to come. One, it’s a lot of fun. And two, a year later I get to read the predictions back and feel extremely dumb. Our collective guesses for 2020 weren’t terrible, exactly — we nailed Libra (er, Diem) failing to launch, the rise of Discord, the splinternet accelerating, and a total stalemate on Section 230 reform.

But we missed a lot, too: a rise in curated experiences did not cause algorithms to “fade into the background”; a deepfake app did not go mainstream in the United States; and Twitch streaming did not power the rise of Oculus. (But the pandemic sort of did? It powered the rise of Twitch, anyway.)

I asked you what you thought was going to happen on the consumer internet in 2021: product changes, breakout apps, regulation, lawsuits, culture trends, and more. Hundreds responded. Here are the best (admittedly US-centric) guesses I saw:

Social networks go crazy for commerce. This one is well on its way — witness Facebook’s move this fall with the Instagram shopping tab and WhatsApp shopping carts — but look for others to try it on in 2021. “Live video shopping,” says Gautam Gupta, former CEO of NatureBox — one of several folks to predict that this is the year QVC is reborn on mobile phones. “We believe that storytelling has always been a huge part of driving commerce (online and offline) and the ability to combine storytelling with community in the form of live and social shopping will change the face of e-commerce.”

Silicon Valley accelerates its investment in products and services for individual creators. Platforms explore new ways to let creators monetize their audiences directly, while taking a cut for themselves. Charli D’Amelio for Instagram head of product? VidCon CEO Jim Louderback predicts a Cameo / OnlyFans tie-up. Everything is available via subscription.

Still, a gulf begins to appear between those who pay for content and those who do not. Subscription fatigue will turn out to be real. And perhaps we lose at least one more paid streaming service?

Remote work reshapes the industry. With tech giants telling workers they can stay home through June or later — and possibly forever — a thousand new problems will lead to 100 new businesses. Priya Sanger predicts 2021 is the year that we see major advances in augmented reality and virtual reality focused on office uses. Meanwhile, everyone begins spending more time in Austin and Miami.

The internet has a reckoning over porn. The Pornhub payment processor deplatforming and related lawsuits may be just the beginning. Think: new fights over content moderation, distribution, and ownership. Open question: what role will OnlyFans play in all this?

Dating apps have a big moment. Many of you predict that when the COVID-19 vaccines have been widely distributed, the Earth will experience a period of prolonged horniness unlike anything that has been seen in generations. Tinder, Grindr, and all the rest are poised to thrive as a result. Wrote consultant Matt Klein, via direct message:

Dating apps continue to thrive as 1. people come out of their homes, and/or 2. people still remain indoors/protective. Both are tailwinds. Match Group stock continues to balloon.

Audio apps take their turn in the spotlight. Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse have captured a good deal of attention in Silicon Valley. But lots of you think the party may end before 2021 is out. “They all get relegated to phone sex apps with podcast energy,” predicts Regynald Augustin of Dispo and Subtweets. (Incidentally, phone sex is happening on Clubhouse, and no that link is not safe for work.)

Public social networks continue to fragment. Parler won’t be the last breakaway republic from Facebook and Twitter. “I think that there will be more popular ‘free speech’ social networks, and it might even become a separate market, with all social networks either left-wing or right-wing echo chambers,” says this pseudonymous reader.

The United States will need a strategy for the regulation of Chinese apps. Says ex-Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos: “There will be another breakout consumer app from a Chinese-aligned multinational and the Biden administration will have to assemble a cohesive strategy out of the wreckage of the Trump-TikTok phony war.” And what of TikTok? I think it will probably end 2021 owned by the Oracle-Walmart consortium, but perhaps not.

The internet saves movie theaters. Maybe a streaming service buys one of the chains as a perk for subscribers. Or maybe the chains stay independent and rent themselves out as virtual conference centers.

Some other things that didn’t pop in my replies but seem likely to me:

Multiple ongoing lawsuits and proposed regulations — related to antitrust in the United States, and data privacy and competition in the European Union — will slow down Big Tech. The US case against Microsoft famously caused it to miss the threat posed to it by the internet; Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg will have to be on guard for the distractions that these cases could bring. (They’re students of Silicon Valley history, and so I imagine they already are.) Still: look for a slower pace of innovation and acquisitions than we might have seen otherwise.

Tech’s labor issues accelerate. The divide between management and labor at tech companies big and small seems to be getting bigger all the time — and so far, nothing that managers have done to date has seemed to mollify their employees. Look for more controversies related to failures here, especially with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As always, there were joke suggestions.

“Section 230 would be repealed and replaced with something that is exactly the same thing.” “The greatest builders of technology, now all in Miami, start to realize the beach is more fun than staring at a text editor for 16 hours a day. No new apps are released in 2021.” Thank you, Alex Kantrowitz of Big Technology. Related, from Glossier’s Ashley Mayer: VCs learn about hurricanes.

And from Brian Merchant, senior editor at OneZero:

As the single-creator subscription model for journalism enters a make-or-break year, writers will increasingly turn to social media platforms to crowd-source content to pad out their Substacks.

Dammit, Brian.

There are also plenty of much harder-to-predict questions about 2021. Will 2020 election denialists gather into a coherent and possibly violent movement? What, if anything, will President Joe Biden do to rein in Big Tech? Will citizen (or candidate) Donald Trump be banned from Twitter or another social network — and if so, why? What are the long-term effects of the massive Russian intrusion into American infrastructure in the second half of this year? Can Facebook’s Oversight Board create a sense of justice in social networks?

I don’t know — but I’m looking forward to finding out. If we learned anything from 2020, it’s that a fresh year is usually full of surprises. I look forward to exploring them together when Platformer returns on January 4th.

This column was co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and democracy.

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