An era of the internet is ending, and we’re watching it happen practically in real time. Twitter has been on a steep and seemingly inexorable decline for, well, years, but especially since Elon Musk bought the company last fall and made a mess of the place. Reddit has spent the last couple of months self-immolating in similar ways, alienating its developers and users and hoping it can survive by sticking its head in the sand until the battle’s over. (I thought for a while that Reddit would eventually be the last good place left, but… nope.) TikTok remains ascendent — and looks ever more likely to be banned in some meaningful way. Instagram has turned into an entertainment platform; nobody’s on Facebook anymore.
You could argue, I suppose, that this is just the natural end of a specific part of the internet. We spent the last two decades answering a question — what would happen if you put everyone on the planet into a room and let them all talk to each other? — and now we’re moving onto the next one. It might be better this way. But the way it has all changed, and the speed with which it has happened, has left an everybody-sized hole in the internet. For all these years, we all hung out together on the internet. And now that’s just gone.
Why is this all happening right now? Lots of reasons, actually, most of them at least somewhat defensible. The economy has gone sour, and after more than a decade of low interest rates and access to nearly unlimited and nearly free money, companies are finding their funding sources to be fewer and more finicky than ever. Those investors are also asking for real returns on that funding, so all these companies have had to switch from “growth at all costs” to “actually make some money.” Few social networking companies have ever made real money, and so they’re scrambling for new features and pivoting to whatever smells like quarterly results.
The rise of AI is also sending all these companies into a tizzy. Large language models from companies like OpenAI and Google are built on top of data collected from the open web. Suddenly, having all your users and content publicly available and easily found has gone from a growth hack to capitalistic suicide; companies around the industry are closing their walls, because they’re hoping to sell their data to AI providers rather than have it all scraped for free. Much of Reddit’s current chaos started with CEO Steve Huffman saying that the company realized that the platform is filled with good information, and “we don’t need to give all of that value to some of the largest companies in the world for free.” On Saturday, Elon Musk introduced Twitter’s new login gate and view count restrictions “to address extreme levels of data scraping & system manipulation.”
Add it all up, and the social web is changing in three crucial ways: It’s going from public to private; it’s shifting from growth and engagement, which broadly involves building good products that people like, to increasing revenue no matter the tradeoff; and it’s turning into an entertainment business. It turns out there’s no money in connecting people to each other, but there’s a fortune in putting ads between vertically scrolling videos that lots of people watch. So the “social media” era is giving way to the “media with a comments section” era, and everything is an entertainment platform now. Or, I guess, trying to do payments. Sometimes both. It gets weird.
As far as how humans connect to one another, what’s next appears to be group chats and private messaging and forums, returning back to a time when we mostly just talked to the people we know. Maybe that’s a better, less problematic way to live life. Maybe feed and algorithms and the “global town square” were a bad idea. But I find myself desperately looking for new places that feel like everyone’s there. The place where I can simultaneously hear about NBA rumors and cool new AI apps, where I can chat with my friends and coworkers and Nicki Minaj. For a while, there were a few platforms that felt like they had everybody together, hanging out in a single space. Now there are none.
What’s next appears to be group chats and private messaging and forums
I’d love to follow that up with, “and here’s the new thing coming next!” But I’m not sure there is one. There’s simply no place left on the internet that feels like a good, healthy, worthwhile place to hang out. It’s not just that there’s no sufficiently popular place; I actually think enough people are looking for a new home on the internet that engineering the network effects wouldn’t be that hard. It’s just that the platform doesn’t exist. It’s not LinkedIn or Tumblr, it’s not upstarts like Post or Vero or Spoutable or Hive Social. It’s definitely not Clubhouse or BeReal. It doesn’t exist.
Long-term, I’m bullish on “fediverse” apps like Mastodon and Bluesky, because I absolutely believe in the possibility of the social web, a decentralized universe powered by ActivityPub and other open protocols that bring us together without forcing us to live inside some company’s business model. Done right, these tools can be the right mix of “everybody’s here” and “you’re still in control.”
The fediverse isn’t ready to take over yet
But the fediverse isn’t ready. Not by a long shot. The growth that Mastodon has seen thanks to a Twitter exodus has only exposed how hard it is to join the platform, and more importantly how hard it is to find anyone and anything else once you’re there. Lemmy, the go-to decentralized Reddit alternative, has been around since 2019 but has some big gaps in its feature offering and its privacy policies — the platform is absolutely not ready for an influx of angry Redditors. Neither is Kbin, which doesn’t even have mobile apps and cautions new users that it is “very early beta” software. Flipboard and Mozilla and Tumblr are all working on interesting stuff in this space, but without much to show so far. The upcoming Threads app from Instagram should immediately be the biggest and most powerful thing in this space, but I’m not exactly confident in Meta’s long-term interest in building a better social platform.
So if not that, what? There’s a good case to be made for apps like WhatsApp and Signal, which at least bring some extra privacy muscle to the table. WhatsApp has been adding more social features over time, particularly Channels, a one-to-many way for creators and brands to talk to all their followers at once. (Telegram is also doing some interesting stuff in this space.) But that’s not social, that’s a news feed. These are still chat apps, meant for talking to one or a few people at a time.
Discord is probably the tool best-suited to capture users’ social needs right now. It’s definitely the best Reddit alternative we have. It’s a clever mix of chat app and broadcast tool, a place where lots of like-minded people could conceivably hang out and connect. But, uh, have you ever been in a Discord with thousands of people? It’s pure chaos, and requires you to either devote your life to keeping up or resolve yourself to missing everything. Discord’s moderation tools are a mess, too, and everyone’s still mad about changing their username.
For all its mess, the social networking era did a uniquely good job of just putting people together in a single place. You didn’t have to pick a server or declare your interests ahead of time; you just showed up, set a password, and got to work. Because everyone was together, these platforms were able to make it trivially easy to find people you like and content that interests you. They were able to learn about you over time, and proactively show you those people and that content before you even had to ask.
This all, of course, came with huge downsides. Retweets and quote tweets made it easy for good content to travel, but also made it easy to mass-harass anyone on Twitter. Meta’s knowledge of its users makes your Explore page more interesting, and only extends the dossier on you available to advertisers. I’m not sure it’s possible to have the good without the bad, and I think the bad might outweigh the good. (As a white guy in America, I also experience the bad far less than many users, and I suspect I’d feel differently about the end of this era if I weren’t quite so privileged here.) But I can’t help but think it’s possible to at least do better.
Maybe we should all embrace the downfall of social networks, and maybe my (and our) need for a global water cooler is just a vestigial feeling we’ll all be rid of in a few years. But even before this era fully ends, before Twitter and Reddit turn into MySpace and Friendfeed and basically disappear from my life, I find myself longing for what they once were. Still are, maybe, just not for long. I miss everybody, and I don’t know if I’ll ever find them again.