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Top 10 Social Media Platforms 2021

Social media – what is the first app or platform that you think of? Facebook? Instagram? LinkedIn? Twitter? Or something more obscure such as Goodreads or Youtube? 15 years ago, social media consisted of MySpace with Facebook beginning to rear its head, but today, there’s 17 platforms alone with more than 300 million active users as of January 2022, and there’s plenty more besides them. This gives an idea of how many platforms are available and while many may sound similar on the outset, they always have their own unique selling point.

In this article, I’ll look at the 10 most popular social media platforms in accordance with their number of monthly active users (MAU) as of the end of 2021.

While many platforms have appeared since the early days of the internet and continue to have an impact on society, Facebook is still the top dog. With nearly 3 billion monthly active users, it’s safe to say Facebook still has the pull on users that it had in 2004 with its initial launch. The platform is always trying to stay current by adding the newest, most popular features such as stories, shorts, news feeds and more. Saying this, it can also be noted that the platform is seeing reduced monthly active users for every quarter of the last couple of years, this could be due to Facebook starting to be seen as for the older generations and for keeping in touch with family, and at the end of the day, nothing much else happens there any more. One feature that not many other platforms have perfected, but Facebook has to down to a tee is memories, with every passing year, more memories appear and remind you of what you’ve done in years gone past and remind you of people you may have fallen out of contact with.

Next up is the only platform in the top five that isn’t owned by Meta: Youtube. Sometimes forgotten as a social media platform, Youtube sees more than 500 hours of video uploaded every minute and over 1 billion hours of video consumed every day. When you take into account it has over 2.2 billion monthly active users as well as others who dip in and out, it’s not surprising that Alphabet has seen the success of Youtube and added YT Music in 2015 and Youtube Shorts in 2020. The variety of content available ensures users don’t run out of videos to watch and they always have the option to start their own channel. Starting a channel was easier in the early 2010s when being a Youtuber wasn’t as well known, but now finding a following on the platform is a lot harder due to the concentration of other small channels. While Youtube has many benefits, it’s continually riddled with copyright problems with channels uploading film and TV shows’ most popular scenes and even the full length of the episode/film. It’s also tricky to check every video that’s uploaded, so there’s also vulgar and graphic content online, which has begun to be combated through warnings and age restrictions. On top of that Youtube has now introduced the option to download when you pay for Youtube Premium, but this doesn’t stop other Youtube download services being available online.

In third place, with 2 billion MAU is WhatsApp. While less of a typical social media platform and more of a messaging platform, WhatsApp gives the opportunity to message anyone as long as you have their mobile number, along with the ability to send videos, images, gifs and create group chats, the platform has a lot going for it. With recent updates to privacy settings as well, you can ensure you’re not added to group chats by someone who isn’t saved to your contacts. In addition you don’t have to manage ads on the platform, as the only Meta platform to not run ads it’s its own unique selling point and with the ability to message inter-continental you don’t have to worry about roaming charges either. Meta also released WhatsApp Business in 2018, which allows businesses to create an online catalogue, categorise customer conversations and more. This expansion will continue to see users grow over time as more businesses join the platform.

In fourth place we have Messenger with 1.3 billion MAU. Similar to WhatsApp, users can send and receive messages as well as photos and videos. The main difference between the two platforms is that Messenger is linked to your Facebook account and so if you don’t want a Facebook account, you can’t have a Messenger account either. While it makes contacting people easier, the app can become unreliable at times and once you give the app access to your microphone in order to make voice calls, the app can then access the mic at any time, regardless of whether you’re on the app or not. The platform also lends itself to cooperative working, as it gives you a quick and easy way to share files and links for collaborative working conditions.

Following Messenger is Instagram. As with all social media platforms, Instagram is clearly following the social media platform life cycle, where the older generations are now joining the platform and the teens are still on the platform but starting to look elsewhere for new places to express themselves. All in all, it’s still vastly popular with the general public and as Meta continues to introduce new and updated features, users are unlikely to be looking elsewhere too soon. While TikTok definitely has had more downloads in recent years, Instagram has the upper hand in terms of the variety of features, for example Instagram allows you to post images, 24 hour stories and videos of any length less than an hour, while TikTok only concerns themselves with videos. Instagram has had multiple allegations of misinformation in recent years, but they’ve made big steps in adding in links to trustworthy websites when certain words are mentioned in post captions or stories. They still have complaints of cyberbullying and over advertising, but it is also a very visual platform which gives users the opportunity to express themselves.

Coming in at number six on the list is WeChat. Possibly China’s most well known social media platform, WeChat is similar to WhatsApp in letting people contact and message others around the world and with the ability to translate messages and content from 20 different languages, there is international scope available, as well as being the standard for business and communication within China. There’s also the opportunity for video chatting, picture messaging and video calling. You can also share your location with friends, play mini games with each other and post moments (similar to Instagram’s stories). However it’s not as secure as other apps, especially because in China user data is shared with the government and certain topics are actively censored resulting in temporary and permanent bans from the platform. There is also no type of encryption, so messages can potentially be intercepted and read by third party groups. While the app is available worldwide, to sign up you need a current user to scan a QR code to verify you.

Number seven sees another platform from China, Kuaishou. Similar to TikTok, it’s a short video social platform where users can record and share their lives. With a million MAU, there’s clearly competition with TikTok, which is also Chinese owned and has similar features such as live streaming, virtual gifts, advertising and e-commerce. The app was founded in 2011 as a platform where users created GIFs, the short video and social media platform was launched in 2013 with live streaming added in 2016. Being based in China means the platform must abide by China’s State Administration for Market Regulation, who has released anti-monopoly rules and limits on user spending and restrictions on minors buying items. Not only is there competition with TikTok, one of Kuaishou’s major investors, Tencent, has launched a similar short video feature within WeChat as well, suggesting this media form could be the future.

And speaking of TikTok, while the most downloaded app of 2021 with almost 586 million downloads (second place was Instagram with 566 million), the platform has quickly shot up through the charts. The app was first launched in 2016, but didn’t see international popularity until August 2018 when it merged with and took the world by storm. It again saw a surge in downloads during the first quarter of 2020 as people began spending more time at home due to the coronavirus pandemic and thus had more time to fill up. TikTok has grabbed the attention of over 1 billion users through the opportunity to use your creative skills to put together professional videos or to create quick, quirky, niche videos depending on your style and preferences. With a variety of topics, ranging from food and fashion to DIY, animal lovers and fitness, and the opportunity to use currently trending songs and filters to create content, you’ll be hard pressed to not find something that grabs you. However there’s always going to be some type of downside to the most downloaded social media platform as well. With videos generally being around 15 seconds long, it’s difficult to portray a realistic view of your life without editing out the negatives. This can create false realities and have a huge impact on your audience’s mental health. And regardless of what type of negative input you take from the app, TikTok’s AI algorithm will continue to show you videos similar to what you’ve previously viewed, so for those viewing damaging videos, those videos will continue to be shown and promoted, thus continuing to mentally harm the individual. This platform sees 1 billion MAU.

Next up is the only app on the list from the United Arab States: Telegram. Another online message app, Telegram works like WhatsApp and Messenger, where you can send messages to friends while connected to WiFi or mobile data. With 600 million downloads, this app could be considered problematic due to the lack of default end to end encryption and when it is enabled, you can only access messages on one device. It also doesn’t have any ties to other social media platforms, which could make it appealing to those who don’t want links to Meta etc. Another positive is the ability to be able to send files of up to 2GB in size, the only platform that comes close to this limit is Skype which limits users to 300MB. While there are plenty of benefits, there’s also some drawbacks: for example with only 600 million MAU compared to 3 billion on Facebook, there’s a good chance your contacts aren’t on the app. In addition contacts get notified when you join the app, this can be a problem when you want to send secure, private messages. Finally, it’s becoming known as a gathering place for conspiracy theorists and hate groups, because mainstream social media services are taking down QAnon, neo-Nazis and other hate groups and theorists, they’re moving to Telegram due to the enhanced security and permissive content policies, even though Telegram is trying to combat them.

And the final platform on the list is another platform from China: Qzone. With the full version only being available for Mandarin speakers, Qzone still has 600 million international monthly active users. It was created in 2005 and allows users to write blogs, keep diaries, send photos, listen to music and watch videos. It began as somewhere to write blogs, but has expanded to reflect the Chinese market and now is seen as a social media platform as well. However with the rise of WeChat, Qzone is beginning to see a decline. While being popular, there’s still certain levels of censorship on the platform, with the strictest level preventing users from posting at all, this is thought to be managed by an automated system which is triggered by keywords, phrases or even whole passages that are plugged into the system by administrators. In other cases, posts can be ‘held for moderation’ or unpublished later on.

This list has a variety of widely recognised social media platforms combined with those from China and the UAE. However, as stated at the beginning, there’s many more platforms that people are turning to for entertainment, escapism and education. Below are the ones to watch out for:

  • Twitch – with 140 million MAU, the live streaming platform allows creators to interact with audiences in real time and thus being popular with video gaming enthusiasts
  • Discord – having started out as a gaming platform, users are now using it for general video, audio and messaging. Currently the platform sees 100 million MAU
  • Clubhouse – unlike Facebook or Twitter, Clubhouse uses audio only connectivity between audiences and speakers.

While these are only an example of the possibilities for future connectivity, there’s clearly a move towards audio-visual content as opposed to text only, which may explain why platforms such as Twitter haven’t made an appearance on the list.

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