In today’s highly-connected and instantaneous world, we have access to a massive amount of information at our fingertips.
Historically, however, this hasn’t always been the case.
Time travel back just 20 years ago to 2002, and you’d notice the vast majority of people were still waiting on the daily paper or the evening news to help fill the information void.
In fact, for most of 2002, Google was trailing in search engine market share behind Yahoo! and MSN. Meanwhile, early social media incarnations (MySpace, Friendster, etc.) were just starting to come online, and all of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the iPhone did not yet exist.
The Waves of Media So Far
Every so often, the dominant form of communication is upended by new technological developments and changing societal preferences.
These transitions seem to be happening faster over time, aligning with the accelerated progress of technology.
- Proto-Media (50,000+ years)
Humans could only spread their message through human activity. Speech, oral tradition, and manually written text were most common mediums to pass on a message.
- Analog and Early Digital Media (1430-2004)
The invention of the printing press, and later the radio, television, and computer unlock powerful forms of one-way and cheap communication to the masses.
- Connected Media (2004-current)
The birth of Web 2.0 and social media enables participation and content creation for everyone. One tweet, blog post, or TikTok video by anyone can go viral, reaching the whole world.
Each new wave of media comes with its own pros and cons.
For example, Connected Media was a huge step forward in that it enabled everyone to be a part of the conversation. On the other hand, algorithms and the sheer amount of content to sift through has created a lot of downsides as well. To name just a few problems with media today: filter bubbles, sensationalism, clickbait, and so on.
Before we dive into what we think is the next wave of media, let’s first break down the common attributes and problems with prior waves.
Wave Zero: Proto-Media
Before the first wave of media, amplifying a message took devotion and a lifetime.
Add in the fact that even by the year 1500, only 4% of global citizens lived in cities, and you can see how hard it would be to communicate effectively with the masses during this era.
Or, to paint a more vivid picture of what proto-media was like: information could only travel as fast as the speed of a horse.
Wave 1: Analog and Early Digital Media
In this first wave, new technological advancements enabled widescale communication for the first time in history.
Newspapers, books, magazines, radios, televisions, movies, and early websites all fit within this framework, enabling the owners of these assets to broadcast their message at scale.
With large amounts of infrastructure required to print books or broadcast television news programs, it took capital or connections to gain access. For this reason, large corporations and governments were usually the gatekeepers, and ordinary citizens had limited influence.
|📡 Information Flow||One-way|
|💰 Barriers to Entry||Very high|
|📰 Distribution||Controlled by mass media companies and government|
|🏆 Incentive||To cast a wide net, and to not alienate viewers or advertisers|
Importantly, these mediums only allowed one-way communication—meaning that they could broadcast a message, but the general public was restricted in how they could respond (i.e. a letter to the editor, or a phone call to a radio station).
Wave 2: Connected Media
Innovations like Web 2.0 and social media changed the game.
Starting in the mid-2000s, barriers to entry began to drop, and it eventually became free and easy for anyone to broadcast their opinion online. As the internet exploded with content, sorting through it became the number one problem to solve.
For better or worse, algorithms began to feed people what they loved, so they could consume even more. The ripple effect of this was that everyone competing for eyeballs suddenly found themselves optimizing content to try and “win” the algorithm game to get virality.
|📡 Information Flow||Two-way|
|💰 Barriers to Entry||Very low|
|📰 Distribution||Controlled by technology companies and algorithms|
|🏆 Incentive||To cast a narrow net, to engage and mobilize a specific audience|
Viral content is often engaging and interesting, but it comes with tradeoffs. Content can be made artificially engaging by sensationalizing, using clickbait, or playing loose with the facts. It can be ultra-targeted to resonate emotionally within one particular filter bubble. It can be designed to enrage a certain group, and mobilize them towards action—even if it is extreme.
Despite the many benefits of Connected Media, we are seeing more polarization than ever before in society. Groups of people can’t relate to each other or discuss issues, because they can’t even agree on basic facts.
Perhaps most frustrating of all? Many people don’t know they are deep within their own bubble in which they are only fed information they agree with. They are unaware that other legitimate points of view exist. Everything is black and white, and grey thinking is rarer and rarer.
Wave 3: Data Media
Between 2015 and 2025, the amount of data captured, created, and replicated globally will increase by 1,600%.
For the first time ever, a significant quantity of data is becoming “open source” and available to anyone. There have been massive advancements in how to store and verify data, and even the ownership of information can now be tracked on the blockchain. Both media and the population are becoming more data literate, and they are also becoming aware of the societal drawbacks stemming from Connected Media.
As this new wave emerges, it’s worth examining some of its attributes and connecting concepts in more detail:
Data literate users will begin to demand that data is transparent and originating from trustworthy, factual sources. Or if a source is not rock solid, users will demand that limitations of methodology or possible biases are openly revealed and discussed.
- Verifiability and Trust:
How do we know data shown is legitimate and bonafide? Platforms and media will increasingly want to prove to users that data has been verified, going all the way back to the original source.
- Decentralization and Web3:
Anyone can tap into large amounts of public data available today, which means that reporting, analysis, ideas, and insights can come from an increasingly growing set of actors. Web3 and decentralized ledgers will allow us to provide trust, attribution, accountability, and even ownership of content when necessary. This can remove the middleman, which is often large tech companies, and can allow users to monetize their content more directly.
- Data Storytelling
Growing data literacy, and the explosion of data storytelling is a key approach to making sense of vast amounts of data, by combining data visualization, narrative, and powerful insights.
- Data Creator Economy:
Democratized data and the rise of storytelling are intersecting to create a potential new ecosystem for data storytellers. This is increasingly what we are focused on at Visual Capitalist, and we encourage you to support our Kickstarter project on this (just 6 days left, as of publishing time)
- Open-Ended Ecosystem:
Just like open source has revolutionized the software industry, we will begin to see more and more data available broadly. Incentives may shift in some cases from keeping data proprietary, to getting it out in the open so that others can use, remix, and publish it, and attributing it back to the original source.
- Data > Opinion:
Data Media will have a bias towards facts over opinion. It’s less about punditry, bias, spin, and telling others what they should think, and more about allowing an increasingly data literate population to have access to the facts themselves, and to develop their own nuanced opinion on them.
- Global Data Standards:
As data continues to proliferate, it will be important to codify and unify it when possible. This will lead to global standards that will make communicating it even easier.
Early Pioneers of Data Media
The Data Media ecosystem is just beginning to emerge, but here are some early pioneers we like:
- Our World in Data:
Led by economist Max Roser, OWiD is doing an excellent job amalgamating global economic data in one place, and making it easy for others to remix and communicate those insights effectively.
Founded by Steve Ballmer of Microsoft fame to be a non-partisan source of U.S. government data.
This tool by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis is just one example of many tools that have cropped up over the years to democratize data that were previously proprietary or hard to access. Other similar tools have been created by the IMF, World Bank, and so on.
FiveThirtyEight uses statistical analysis, data journalism, and predictions to cover politics, sports, and other topics in a unique way.
At FlowingData, data viz expert Nathan Yau explores a wide variety of data and visualization themes.
- Data Journalists:
There are incredible data journalists at publications like The Economist, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Reuters that are tapping into the early beginnings of what is possible. Many of these publications also made their COVID-19 work freely available during the pandemic, which is certainly commendable.
Growth in data journalism and the emergence of these pioneers helps give you a sense of the beginnings of Data Media, but we believe they are only scratching the surface of what is possible.
What Data Media is Not
In a sense, it’s easier to define what Data Media isn’t.
Data Media is not partisan pundits arguing over each other on a newscast, and it’s not fake news, misinformation, or clickbait that is engineered to drive easy clicks. Data media is not an echo chamber that only reinforces existing biases. Because data is also less subjective, it’s less likely to be censored in the way we see today.
Data is not perfect, but it can help change the conversations we are having as a society to be more constructive and inclusive. We hope you agree!
Visualizing the World’s Top Social Media and Messaging Apps
From Twitter to TikTok, this infographic compares the universe of social media and messaging platforms by number of monthly active users.
The Social Media Universe in 2022
For a time, life in the social media universe was mostly uneventful. Consider these spicy (at the time) headlines:
- Even President Obama Thinks That Facebook Isn’t Cool Anymore (Techcrunch, 2014)
- Jack Dorsey Returns to Twitter as Chief, to Shrugs and Quips (New York Times, 2015)
- Instagram’s new stories are a near-perfect copy of Snapchat (Mashable, 2016)
In hindsight, the years leading up to 2016 were downright sleepy in comparison with what would follow. Donald Trump’s meteoric, tweet-powered rise to the presidency. The Cambridge Analytica scandal. Congressional hearings on privacy and bias. TikTok at the center of souring U.S.–China relations. Each new day brought a fresh wave of controversy the shores of once infallible social media platforms.
Today, the honeymoon phase is long over and the messiness of running a global social platform is now on full display. Nowhere is this more evident than Twitter during the current Elon Musk transitional period—but more details on that later.
For now, let’s explore the social media universe in 2022.
Mapping the Social Media and Messaging Universe
In 2022, the social universe is looking more crowded than in previous years.
The scale of Meta’s platforms still dominate thanks to their global reach, but there are a number of smaller networks fighting for market share. Here’s a look at popular platforms, organized from largest to smallest active userbase:
Meanwhile, here are the top 10 social media and messaging platforms by publicly-available monthly active users:
|Rank||Platform Name||Parent Company||Primary Function||Monthly Active Users|
|#1||Meta Platforms||Social network||2.9 billion|
|#2||YouTube||Alphabet||Video content||2.3 billion|
|#3||Meta Platforms||Messaging||2.0 billion|
|#4||Messenger||Meta Platforms||Messaging||1.3 billion|
|#5||Meta Platforms||Video content||1.2 billion|
|#7||TikTok||ByteDance||Video content||732 million|
|#9||Douyin||ByteDance||Video content||600 million|
YouTube is the only true competition for Meta’s scale and reach. Alphabet’s video content hub with social features boasts more than two billion monthly active users. YouTube’s embrace of the creator economy is nudging the platform further into pure social media territory with the introduction of “handles”.
As seen in the visualization above, China has its own ecosystem of large social and messaging platforms—the largest of these being WeChat.
The only platform in the top 20 that is not based in either the U.S. or China is the privacy-focused messaging app, Telegram. The Dubai-based company has a unique backstory. It was created after the founders of Russian social network VK left the country after resisting government pressure to release data on the social network’s users in Ukraine.
Today, there are also a number of smaller, special interest platforms. OnlyFans, for example, is focused on adult content creators. Parler and Truth Social appeal to users who want fewer constraints on the content they post and consume. BeReal aims to create more authentic moments by prompting users to post a photo at a random time each day.
Below, we dig into a few of these platforms into more depth.
Big Trouble in Little Metaverse
Having a figurehead CEO is a double-edged sword. When things are going well, the market rallies around the successful leader. Case in point, Mark Zuckerberg was named Time’s Person of the Year in 2010. Even as recently as 2016, Glassdoor named the Facebook founder the “most admired tech CEO”.
On the flip side, when the tide turns, it turns fast. After a series of controversies, Zuckerberg took a multi-billion-dollar gamble by renaming his entire company Meta and pivoting its focus to the burgeoning idea of a metaverse. Meta’s New Horizons platform is rumored to have plateaued at about 200,000 active users, which is underwhelming for a company that still reaches a sizable slice of humanity with its other services.
Part of Meta’s near-term success hinges on VR headsets being a hot gift this holiday season. Meta’s cheapest headset is $400, which could be a tough sell in today’s economic environment.
Of course, it’s too early to know whether Zuckerberg’s gamble will pay off. As always, all is forgiven once a business unit takes off and becomes profitable.
Microblogging with Macro Expectations
Twitter has a complicated history.
The company was launched in the shadow of Facebook’s massive growth, and was saddled with expectations that were tough to meet. Although Twitter has an engaged and influential audience, it hasn’t managed to monetize them at the level of Meta’s platforms (for better or worse). The introduction of Twitter Blue in 2021 did not resonate with users at the scale the company hoped, and “fleets” were essentially written off as a failed experiment.
In addition, Twitter is a magnet for criticism and debate around free speech, in part because of its central place in political discourse.
These issues are directly related to the company’s recent sale to Elon Musk. At the time of this article, Twitter finds itself in the midst of a painful, and very public, internal restructuring.
Social media has always been dominated by Facebook and its related apps. When a new challenger came along, Facebook either acquired it (Instagram, WhatsApp), or “acquired” their features (Snapchat). TikTok is the first challenger to keep its momentum and growth, even as Instagram rolled out very similar features.
TikTok is also a rare case of a Chinese tech product crossing over into Western markets. The ascendancy of TikTok was not without controversy though. Suspicion over Chinese access to user data continues to be an issue both in the U.S., and in other large markets around the world. TikTok has been banned in India since 2020.
Despite these headwinds, TikTok remains wildly popular. The short-form video platform was the number one downloaded app on the planet, and it remains a favorite of the all-important Gen Z demographic.
We Shall Surveil
In recent years, neighborhood-based social networks have sprung up and gained traction. NextDoor used physical letters sent to adjacent addresses to supercharge its growth, while Neighbors piggybacked off the popularity of Ring’s doorbell cameras. Although members post about more benign topics such as lost cats and where to find a good plumber, crime is an increasingly common theme as well.
Apps like Neighbors and Citizen have a more overt focus on crime and safety. While the growth of these apps reflects an obvious interest preventing crime, critics point out that the ubiquity of personal surveillance equipment and forums built purely around public safety promote a culture of suspicion in communities.
This type of social network is still quite new, so it remains to be seen if they remain niche communities, or grow into something bigger.
Chaos and Opportunity
It was Sun Tzu who famously said, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”.
This is the risk and opportunity in the social media universe today. With their massive networks and high switching costs (e.g. personalization, library of existing posts), the largest platforms have created moats that make life hard for upstart brands looking to replace established platforms. On the other hand, controversy on platforms like Twitter and Facebook may cause some users to consider new options.
The multi-billion-dollar question—is dissatisfaction with major platforms temporary, or will emerging networks like Mastodon or BeReal hit critical mass and become new staples for people connecting online. Time will tell.
Visualized: FTX’s Leaked Balance Sheet
As Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto exchange FTX files for bankruptcy, this graphic visualizes FTX’s balance sheet leaked by the Financial Times.
Visualizing FTX’s Balance Sheet Before Bankruptcy
In a difficult year for the crypto space that has been full of hacks, failing funds, and decentralized stablecoins going to zero, nothing has compared to FTX and Sam Bankman-Fried’s (SBF) rapid implosion.
After an astronomical rise in the crypto space over the past three years, crypto exchange FTX and its founder and CEO SBF have come crashing back down to earth, largely unraveled by their misuse of customer funds and illicit relationship with trading firm Alameda Research.
This graphic visualizes FTX’s leaked balance sheet dated to November 10th, and published by the Financial Times on November 12th. The spreadsheet shows nearly $9 billion in liabilities and not nearly enough illiquid cryptocurrency assets to cover the hole.
How did FTX wind up in this position?
How FTX’s Bankruptcy Unfolded
FTX’s eventual bankruptcy was sparked by a report on November 2nd by CoinDesk citing Alameda Research’s balance sheet. The article reported Alameda’s assets to be $14.6 billion, including $3.66 billion worth of unlocked FTT and $2.16 billion of FTT collateral.
With more than one-third of Alameda’s assets tied up in FTX’s exchange token FTT (including loans backed by the token), eyebrows were raised among the crypto community.
Four days later on November 6th, Alameda Research’s CEO, Caroline Ellison, and Sam Bankman-Fried addressed the CoinDesk story as unfounded rumors. However, on the same day, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao (CZ) announced that Binance had decided to liquidate all remaining FTT on their books, kicking off a -7.6% decline in the FTT token on the day.
Back and Forth with Binance’s CZ
While Ellison publicly offered to buy CZ’s FTT directly “over the counter” to avoid further price declines and SBF claimed in a now-deleted tweet that “FTX is fine. Assets are fine.”, FTX users were withdrawing their funds from the exchange.
The next day, the acquisition fell apart as Binance cited corporate due diligence, leaving SBF to face a multi-directional liquidity crunch of users withdrawing funds and rapidly declining token prices that made up large amounts of FTX and Alameda’s assets and collateral for loans.
FTX’s Liabilities and Largely Illiquid Assets
In the final days before declaring bankruptcy, FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried attempted a final fundraising in order restore stability while billions in user funds were being withdrawn from his exchange.
The balance sheet he sent around to prospective investors was leaked by the Financial Times, and reveals the exchange had nearly $9 billion in liabilities while only having just over $1 billion in liquid assets. Alongside the liquid assets were $5.4 billion in assets labeled as “less liquid” and $3.2 billion labeled as “illiquid”.
When examining the assets listed, FTX’s accounting appears to be poorly done at best, and fraudulently deceptive at worst.
Of those “less liquid” assets, many of the largest sums were in assets like FTX’s own exchange token and cryptocurrencies of the Solana ecosystem, which were heavily supported by FTX and Sam Bankman-Fried. On top of this, for many of these coins the liquidity simply wouldn’t have been there if FTX had attempted to redeem these cryptocurrencies for U.S. dollars or stablecoin equivalents.
While the liquid and less liquid assets on the balance sheet amounted to $6.3 billion (still not enough to equal the $8.9 billion in liabilities), many of these “less liquid” assets may as well have been completely illiquid.
Relationship with Alameda Research
When looking at FTX’s financials in isolation, it’s impossible to understand how one of crypto’s largest exchanges ended up with such a lopsided and illiquid balance sheet. Many of the still unfolding details lie in the exchange’s relationship with SBF’s previous venture that he founded, trading firm Alameda Research.
Founded by SBF in 2017, Alameda Research primarily operated as a delta-neutral (a term that describes trading strategies like market making and arbitrage that attempt to avoid taking directional risk) trading firm. In the summer of 2021, SBF stepped down from Alameda Research to focus on FTX, however his influence and connection with the firm was still deeply ingrained.
A report from the Wall Street Journal cites how Alameda was able to amass crypto tokens ahead of their announced public FTX listings, which were often catalysts in price surges. Alongside this, a Reuters story has revealed how SBF secretly moved $10 billion in funds to Alameda, using a bookkeeping “back door” to avoid internal scrutiny at FTX.
While SBF responded to the Reuters story by saying they “had confusing internal labeling and misread it,” there are few doubts that this murky relationship between Alameda Research and FTX was a fatal one for the former billionaire’s empire.
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