Something’s in the air, gang. Giant social media services have been getting more and more problematic for a long time now, but between Elon’s Twitter now circling the drain and Meta continuing to light piles of money on fire with one hand while desperately scrambling to copy ByteDance’s TikTok with the other, this moment in time is really feeling different.
To elaborate a bit more on this spot-on tweet:
Facebook: This is truly a rotting corpse, and a haven for the terminally incurious. If people that still attach Word docs to emails could be transformed into a social network, they’d look just like ol’ blue.
Twitter: Good night, sweet prince. You’ve always been the wild West, but your many, many problems aside, you can never be accused of having been boring.
Instagram: It’s truly become Diet Facebook, desperately scrambling to stay relevant while losing the feature bloat battle and any sense of focus. This thing is infested by MLMers, “influencers” (shudder) and people sharing screenshots of text since they don’t know where else to put them.
TikTok: CCP ties aside, it’s obviously the belle of the ball right now, but it’s in a different basket entirely as an algorithm-driven video delivery service (and bright stars never burn for long).
So where does this leave us? What comes next?
I think it’s helpful to first take a look at the past.
Fellow olds will recall the absolute powerhouse that was America Online in the early-mid ’90s. As the still-relatively-young World Wide Web grew alongside it and became the more compelling destination, AOL eventually cried “uncle” and we enjoyed a brief and lovely period in the early-’00s where independent communities and blogs began flourishing, as interested readers were able to easily follow along through RSS and other emerging ways to aggregate content, while publishers, creators and community builders operated independently on their own websites.
In the grand scheme of things, though, this was still a relatively small global audience, and (with some exceptions like Blogger) creating/maintaining content or joining an independent community on your own was still far too difficult for most people.
That’s when things went South.
Starting with services like Friendster and MySpace, then skyrocketing with Facebook and Twitter, we took a massive step forward in ease of use for creators and community builders, but a massive step backwards in terms of re-centralizing. For the sake of convenience, and to attract larger audiences, we slinked right back to the AOL model, this time at a massively more epic scale.
This situation has lasted so long (more than 15 years now) that many modern Internet users have no memory of the small and glorious window of independence we glimpsed around the turn of the century. To further complicate the issue, this recent era has been twisted up with several other major societal changes, including:
- The rise of cable television cord-cutting and the steady decline of newspaper readership (resulting in less familiarity with established/trusted journalistic sources, Fox News obviously being a ghastly exception).
- The ever-increasing role of these social media services as primary information sources, coupled with troubling digital media illiteracy among the many introduced to the Internet through these portals (and the human desire to want to trust/support things shared by friends).
- The absolute explosion of intentional mis and disinformation flooding in from all sides, as these services are incredibly compelling centralized targets. Tons of bang for their buck.
So here we sit in 2022, watching some of these mighty empires crumble, and wondering where everyone will swing to next.
Is it BeReal? Spoiler: It’s super enjoyable honestly, but uh…probably not.
Discord? Also tons of traction, but obnoxious brands are already moving in, and did we learn nothing about controlling your own destiny at your own domain? Why do we keep hitting ourselves, people?
As someone that’s now lived through this cycle a few times, I propose that we’re now in a unique position to truly bring these ill-conceived Towers of Babel crashing down.
- Most people still needed Internet training wheels in the mid-’00s, but we now have the benefit of hindsight and have all clearly witnessed what a decade and a half of centralized social networking did to society. The audience is massively larger this time than during the AOL to web transition, and now far, far wiser.
- The tools and services to allow anyone to easily create, follow and participate in independent communities are ready for prime time. Disclosure: I worked at a place that tried to make this shift a bit too early, and now work at its spiritual successor, but there are (and should be!) a cornucopia of compelling options and services depending on your needs, like WordPress, Substack, Mastodon and more.
In other words, we’re at an important transition point once again in Internet history, and we should take what we’ve all learned the hard way to build the future we want and deserve. Independent content and communities at your own domain. Data you own and control. Easy to start and easy to use.
Let’s do this.