Weirdos like myself, who pay too much attention to tech platforms, are currently mulling a question: Is social media dying? The New York Times’ Kevin Roose formally kicked this off in a guest post in The Morning newsletter last week, chronicling the recent struggle of Big Tech companies. It seems that, between the tech stocks getting hammered, a cooling social-media ad market, and platforms like Twitter hemorrhaging users and getting bought by mercurial billionaires, the social-media landscape does feel rather different than it has over the last decade. But what does that mean?
I confess that, even though it has very real consequences for the way these companies operate, I can’t bring myself to care that much right now about flagging stock prices or the marketplace for targeted ads on social networks. What I am interested in is the cultural notion of the question “Is social media dying?”
Platform decay on Facebook continues apace; one year ago, in the first post of this newsletter, I compared a lot of what’s happening on Facebook to the vast wasteland of daytime TV. Twitter is full of non-Musk-related bad news, the most notable being that sports and entertainment content are waning in popularity on the platform while crypto and pornographic content are the platform’s fastest-growing categories. (Moral judgements aside, historically, it is usually a grim sign for platforms when they become disproportionately flooded by pornography and get-rich-quick material.) Similarly, places like Instagram feel a bit scuzzier lately. It’s anecdotal, but my feed and the feeds of people I talk to are so overrun with algorithmically recommended “related content” these days that you have to work a bit to find your friends in the morass.
A lot of what I’m describing is, admittedly, a vibe. But it’s a vibe of the “Welcome to Allegiant Air; yes, we’re going to charge you for a glass of water” variety. It’s not quite an “Everything Must Go” doorbusters situation, but it isn’t exactly trending in the right direction.
I’ve been trying to talk myself into the social-media death-spiral idea, but it feels like the wrong framework to describe what is essentially just an evolution of the way people use the internet. To suggest that momentary stalls or plateaus, or even declines in platforms, spell certain death is, to some degree, to buy into Silicon Valley and Wall Street’s notion that anything other than perpetual hockey-stick growth is a death knell (and I find that outlook generally toxic and grating).
There are a few things that I think are probably going on, instead. The first is that some platforms just have a natural network decay. Facebook was, at first, novel and exclusive (I got an invite from a friend who was in college! Very exciting!). Then, it grew and took on a different kind of utility (you could find all kinds of people on it from your past, or whom you met at a party!). Soon, every human you knew was on it, and, overnight, it morphed into a lot of people’s main news source. The loudest, angriest people—many of whom didn’t quite understand how to talk to people online—made it an unpleasant place to be, so a lot of people left or stopped engaging, and the loudest voices got louder.
The same thing is happening on Twitter. One thing I’ve noticed a lot is that a lot of my favorite power users have become power lurkers. They haven’t given up the platform, but they realize that posting is mostly a losing game full of professional liabilities, endless and futile fights, and diminishing returns. And that’s grim because, for those who do post, we’re much more likely to encounter the loudest, angriest, most politically charged voices in response, which in turn makes the place less fun to be around!
The second factor is the predictability of online discourse. Even if you strip away the toxicity and political polarization and the overlapping polycrisis that is being alive in 2022, it’s hard to deny that a lot of us have been logging into the same platforms that have many of the same quirks, communities, and rhythms for years. We’ve all been at the party for a long time! There’s something lovely and comforting about that, but also something that’s exhausting and boring, too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this line from Ezra Klein about Elon Musk regarding Twitter. The gist is that Musk is the ultimate player of the game of Twitter, and now he’s purchased the arcade. “He will have won the game,” Klein writes. “And nothing loses its luster quite like a game that has been beaten.” Now, only one person gets to buy Twitter, but I think everyone feels a bit of that loss of luster. We log on to our platforms, and we essentially know what everyone’s going to say and do.
The third factor is an algorithmic one. The best argument that social media is dying is if you define social media as public feeds full of stuff that your friends post. Because that does appear to be going away, in part due to algorithmically curated feeds. It might be too simple to only blame TikTok and the influence of its For You page for this, but I think it’s directionally right. The For You page offers a frictionless user experience—you don’t even have to be logged into TikTok’s app to start immediately sampling some of its most popular, even niche content. It’s a genius, addictive feature, and, as every other platform tries to import elements of FYP into their app, they’ll make it so that you’re seeing less and less of what your friends are doing.
Now, if your platform is in good health, with a vibrant, creative user base, and your recommendation algorithms do a good job of quickly assessing your users’ preferences, then it might work out for you. But if your user base is slowly atrophying due to the network decay I described above, or if your algorithms are pretty mediocre at understanding what your users like, your platform will start to feel a bit like a mall where all the stores have been replaced by weird cellphone-case kiosks.
I think the biggest factor, though, is that media-consumption behaviors are shifting. A few weeks ago I spoke with the political science professor Kevin Munger, who is very focused on TikTok and its ascendance in politics. Here’s how he described it:
The combination of the short video and algorithm is something people really like, but, more importantly, it seems that people are really adept at using it. What I mean is that it seems like more people naturally are able to put out a decent TikTok video than, say, can write a very good tweet. And that sounds flippant, but I actually think it matters. It’s an era of social video taking off.
I’m not totally certain if he’s right about people being more likely to create a good TikTok than a good tweet, but I strongly believe that short-form videos are far easier and more engaging to consume than cascading feeds of short-burst text. Munger goes further, suggesting that a much bigger shift is coming that will drive our society further and further away from text as a medium:
People are always looking for more information that’s faster and easier to digest. And video just encodes so much more information than text. The medium is so dense, and, ultimately, that’s more effective at communicating information. It’s shocking how much less experience younger generations have with reading, and just how much better trained they are to use and interpret high-density mediums. I don’t mean this as a negative—they are able to communicate so much better with these mediums.
This shift still feels like social media—but in the way that YouTube is considered social media. It’s about feeds and broadcasting in a way that, even with individuals, feels very conscious of people as internet brands. What feels much less ascendant is the more personal and informal status-update form of social media, which we’re seeing get funneled into siloed messaging apps, text threads, and chat communities like Discord. The broadcast-focused version of social media, as Munger suggested, is one with people who argue about politics in green-screened “videos that look more like a John Oliver or Tucker Carlson cable-news clip than anything else.”
You could say that social media isn’t exactly dying, but bifurcating. Apps like Twitter—which don’t really offer the ability to split status updates and broadcast capacities or switch to short-form video posting—and Facebook—which are essentially so rotted out by network decay—are not fertile ground for this kind of consumption shift.
One could also say that social media isn’t dying but that text, as the cornerstone medium of modern society, is. I ran this idea by my colleague Kate Lindsay, who writes about the internet and focuses a great deal of attention on TikTok. She suggested that TikTok “didn't kill old social media, but I think it changed what we're looking to consume online.”
One place where I do get hung up on the social-media death-spiral argument is when it comes to the future of the “global town square.” Now, almost all social-media sites are siloed. Because people build out follower networks, everyone has a different experience on a given platform. We make our biggest mistakes on social platforms (especially lately) by assuming that any experience on an app is universal. But one thing that’s generally missing from the shift in social-media consumption is a central “town square” space. Right now, Twitter mostly fills this role for the journalists, politicians, and various addicted sickos.
Rightly or wrongly, Twitter is a place where a lot of people pull crap from other platforms and the culture, and get real mad about it—and then other news sites pull from that, and it becomes news in a more formalized way. This dynamic certainly also takes place on TikTok; Lindsay told me in this newsletter over the summer that there is a pretty robust community on TikTok dedicated to discussing niche and non-niche Twitter drama. But, given TikTok’s algorithmic siloing, I feel like the “global town square” experience is harder to replicate on that app than on others. There are, without a doubt, many massive viral hits on the app that embed their way into, and even define, chunks of our pop culture—but there is less of that collective experience from a consumption standpoint. Everyone’s experience seems even more different on a platform like TikTok than on, say, Twitter.
That nothing has come around to quite replicate Twitter’s incredibly messy “siloed and yet still very public and observable” nature is probably the best argument that the platform is sticking around—for a while, at least. That said, I think that Twitter will likely become even more weird and uncool than it already is. The platform has always been a strange little haven for news-addled nerds, but it seems that, as social-media creation and consumption patterns shift, Twitter will continue to resemble a generational time capsule—full of people who grew addicted to it during a time on the social web when it was A) cool or B) the beating heart of news and culture during a batshit presidency.
Those who stay on will do so because they have meaningful relationships there or because it’s still useful for their career or, worse, because they’re still captured by the same attentional incentives and outrages of the Trump era and don’t want (or know how) to quit them. Call it Geriatric Social Media. (It feels especially right, using this moniker, that Twitter’s new owner is a 51-year-old who traffics in dusty, overused memes and likes to talk about how nobody can do real comedy anymore.)
All of this feels a bit weird to me, a proud denizen of geriatric social media. It is quite strange, especially when you write about technology, to feel like the tools that define your formative era of the internet are no longer ascendant. But just because patterns are changing, I think it’s a mistake to assume that social media is on its way out altogether.
The maturation of different media categories can start to convolute the language we use for it. We used to separate between analog and digital formats until, eventually, “digital” became an almost meaningless distinction. Something similar has happened with the term creators, which used to signify a very specific group. But now, it seems that more and more people are behaving like creators, or at least responding to similar incentives. It’s possible that “social media” is undergoing this same process, where the phrase itself is kind of a meaningless distinction.
The internet—everything that makes it wonderful and awful—is the product of social connection and networks of humans. If it’s enraging and chaotic and delightful and impossible to summarize because it’s being created in real time by millions of people who are all trying to make money/win affection/make friends/kill time, then it’s social media. It’s all social media.