Spark

Social media can be 'toxic' and 'violent' — so people are trading it for private chats: journalist

Tech journalist Takara Small says people are building private social networks, through group messages with friends and family and interest-based communities, to create a safe space online.

A private group chat lets users share their thoughts without worrying about the trolls, journalist says

Social media users are using private Facebook groups and messenger to chat with family and friends, instead of posting publicly. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

With privacy scandals, trolls, and misinformation, the internet can seem like a scary place to post about your life publicly — so people are turning to private, niche groups instead, a tech journalist says. 

Takara Small says people are building private networks within big social platforms like Facebook through group chats with friends and family as well as interest-based communities, in order to create safe spaces online.

Spark host Nora Young spoke with Small, a tech expert for CBC Radio's Metro Morning and host of the Globe and Mail podcast I'll Go First, about what is driving this trend.

Here is part of their conversation.

Technology journalist Takara Small spoke with Nora Young about the growing trend of closed, private spaces within big social media platforms. 23:08

I understand that you have some experience with using these private groups. Tell me about your own experience. 

I'm actually part of several private groups, and I've really seen an increase ... in recent years, say in the last five years. And that's just simply because if you are part of a minority group or you're a woman, sometimes the online space can be quite toxic. 

It can be actually quite violent and you need a safe space where you can discuss, share thoughts, ideas without having to worry.

What are other things that might be driving this from the user's point of view? 

I think also we've seen the number of hacks, you know, scandals where … companies are using private data that these individuals share for monetary gain.

I think in general people are a lot more aware, and especially younger people are looking to private groups because they don't want to be a commodity. They don't want their data sold.

Takara Small says that young people are leaning towards private chats because they don't want their data to be a commodity. (Submitted by Takara Small)

In this context, what do you think the big platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram what are they failing to do? What's the need that they're not meeting?

I think they're trying very hard to provide those types of services people are looking for. 

I think that's why we saw Facebook and WhatsApp and Instagram align when it comes to security. I think it's really hard for those companies to provide the type of privacy expectations because, for so long, their entire business model has been: We're open. So it's really hard to change that narrative for people.

But certainly they're trying. I mean Mark Zuckerberg has said the future is private, which is a huge pivot for Facebook.

So from the tech business point of view, are they just responding to what users seem to want or is there something else going on here?

For a very long time, everything was public. The idea was to be as open as you possibly can with every aspect of your life. But as the internet matures and we see the consequences of how our data is used or abused, people are opting for private.

And in the future, I truly believe, the default will be privacy. 

Moving forward the applications you use right now and those that are creating the future will default to privacy and you will have to opt in to any type of public presence.

Those personal spaces are incredibly important especially when it's so easy these days for people to lean into toxicity.- Takara Small

So there are these private groups but then there's also this kind of related trend toward niche communities which are not private, per se, but they're designed to be smaller. 

Do you see potential in these kind of nichey ... groups? 

Definitely. I think as well as … looking at certain diverse groups, for a very long time, their needs were not reflected in the mainstream apps.

And so I think if you're going to create a specific service, specific platform, specific app, for those groups, you'd see huge numbers.

Could you give me an example?

There's an app that's just for black creatives. And so that may not seem like it's necessary or it may seem like a little niche, but when then you expand that to think about black creatives all over the world, there is a huge number of people who would love to connect with other people, who maybe have the same type of artistic vision or maybe have a certain experience within the art community and are looking for advice. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook is prioritizing private messages and groups, as users move away from the public platform. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Is there a chance that we could just get burnt out by all these groups?

I definitely feel that and I have so many friends, colleagues that feel the same way. The digital burnout is a real thing and it's very visceral and it can have an actual physical impact on you.

What I always say is pick the platform that works for you.

I can't help but wonder, especially as we sort of splinter into all of these different platforms, if they're separating us in some way?

There are a lot more ways that people are connecting and, as you mentioned, like the burnout is real. But I think that fractured type of online space has happened for so many people for so many years. There are so many women groups or women clubs. There are so many different avenues and spaces for a particular type of group. We're just finally catching up with the internet to what's happened in real life.

Right. And I guess the promise is, as you suggested, that what you're getting is a deeper connection and a more real connection within those groups, because they feel like safe spaces and because there's shared interests, shared life experience, etc.

I think there'll always be … a shared public space where people can communicate. I think something like Twitter, Facebook will always exist, and people can always connect with a larger audience, but those personal spaces are incredibly important, especially when it's so easy these days for people to lean into toxicity. 


Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Nora Young. 

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