Web Summit 2021: The future of tech is post-purpose

type - big idea
Big Idea
category - digital
sector - media & technology
We’ve just lived through our most online period in history. Here’s what Web Summit predicts will come next, from brand obsession to metaverse scepticism

Facebook goes Meta

Fresh off the back of Facebook’s much-publicised announcement of Meta, the stages of Web Summit quickly became a hotspot for controversial debate on the future of the social media platform.

Facebook itself appeared virtually from Silicon Valley, with its chief product officer Chris Cox taking to the Summit's main arena to fend off questions about its Meta rebranding – as well as continuing conversations about its 2.9bn users’ privacy. ‘Every new technology starts awkward,’ Cox told the audience, when questioned about the cartoonish nature of the viral Meta simulations. He went on to note that, although the technology and sector are still in early development, it won’t be long before the metaverse is regulated in the same way as social media platforms.

Cecilia Kang wasn’t convinced by Cox’s presentation. The New York Times reporter has just published An Ugly Truth, a book on Facebook’s battle for domination, and took to the stage directly after Cox to voice a caveat to his tech-optimism. ‘Meta is a great distraction from the problems that Facebook faces,’ she argued. According to Kang, the most dangerous aspect of Facebook is the power its founder has, a fact that has led to it having ‘no friends on campus’. ‘It’s unusual to have a company of Facebook’s size that still has a founder in charge – it continues to be the embodiment of Mark Zuckerberg,’ she said, suggesting that social media will soon be regulated as a utility rather than a technology.

Rethinking news for the misinformation era

Amid a Covid-19 misinformation crisis, the changing role of news – and how to engage a generation obtaining information from social media platforms as opposed to traditional channels – was a keen topic of conversation.

Ben de Pear, editor of Channel 4 News, spoke about his grapples with social media as he prepares to step down from his role after nine years. He argued that social giants, by ‘not caring enough about news’, are contributing to ‘the cancer of misinformation’, alongside streaming disruptors like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which are also snubbing media’s role as an educator and informer by focusing chiefly on entertainment. Instead, De Pear suggested how documentary-making can incite policy-making, highlighting the recent Framing Britney Spears documentary as an example.

Discussing the blurring line between influencers and journalists, the editors-in-chief of Thomson Reuters, Yasir Khan, and Refinery29, Simone Oliver, sketched out new ways for media to be regulated. ‘The problem with legacy media is this self-imposed delusion that they’re objective,’ said Khan. ‘Instead, we should be aiming for accuracy and fairness.’ Oliver believed the answer lies in two-way debate between journalists and audiences, highlighting that the Refinery29 team is active in social media comments sections and closed Facebook groups. News disruptors such as Frame were also present at the summit, pitching its unconventional content as solutions to outdated media channels.

Published by:

7 December 2021

Author: Holly Friend

Image: Nature and Money by Sina Grebrodt


Meta by Facebook, US

Brand vulnerability takes centre stage

It’s been nearly two years since our Post-purpose Brands macrotrend unpacked industries’ bad habit of purpose-washing. But even as we approach 2022, the redefinition of purpose was much discussed among founders, industry analysts and a new breed of creative activists attending Web Summit.

Nachson Mimran defines himself as just this. He’s the CEO of To.org, a new civic organisation that pairs eco-activism with venture capitalism. Mimran believes strongly in the importance of corporate vulnerability to create genuine change. Likening this concept to Alcoholics Anonymous, he argues that: ‘50% of the road to recovery comes from saying: I have a problem’. As well as admitting to eco-imperfection, Mimran takes a unique approach to activism in that he spotlights the importance of profit as part of the sustainability journey. As such, his mission is to ‘have fun, make money, do more good’.

Also rocking the brand purpose boat, Alan Sylvain, founder of strategy consultancy SYLVAIN, expressed his disdain for purpose as a goal. Instead, he believes it should be an integral part of a start-up’s starter pack. What’s more, Sylvain is floating the idea of obsession as a more socially ethical alternative to purpose. ‘Obsession can lead us to greatness,’ he told attendees, perhaps sparking a new buzzword that we will no doubt see in brand manifestos in the coming years – hopefully with actions to back it up.

The new youth culture playgrounds

Where Facebook may be faltering, new platforms are thriving in securing the next generation of internet users, with trust, community and normality acting as key pillars in what makes a successful platform today.

Those who didn’t know about FaZe Clan were schooled by the eSports organisation’s chief operating officer Jaci Hays, who highlighted just how significant young people’s passion for gaming has been for the entertainment industry. She noted that the gaming sector has overtaken music, tv and surfing the internet as Generation Z’s sole focus of attention, meaning it’s a powerful market we can no longer demote to a hobby. The organisation has collaborated with everyone from pop artist Takashi Murakami to DC Comics, which saw members of the FaZe Clan depicted as modern superheroes. ‘They value their in-game presence as much as their physical – if not more,’ explained Hays.

‘Do the benefits of a digital product or service balance or outweigh the cost?’
Tom Jarrett, designer

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