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Great news social media is falling apart

Shubham Agarwal   

Great news — social media is falling apart

I've become a social-media ghost over the past few years. I haven't posted on Instagram since December, I've gone from tweeting several times a day to a couple of times a week, and I haven't signed into Facebook or Snapchat in ages. Looking at many of my profiles, you'd think they were abandoned. And I'm not alone: People are spending less and less time on social media.

For more than a decade, social media has brought people together on a handful of platforms, most notably Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. But in an effort to feed the rapacious desire for growth, these platforms have transformed from places for people to connect to entertainment channels. As the big players have deteriorated into a chaotic mash of shouting and sponsored content, alienated users are decamping for a hodgepodge of platforms.

Like many young people, I've taken refuge in close-knit private circles such as group chats. In these smaller spaces, populated with friends and family, I don't feel the crippling pressure to overshare and harvest my every thought for possible work opportunities. These havens are free from the round-the-clock avalanche of meticulously curated content, ads, and brand campaigns. Instead of the stilted experience of hanging out in a shopping mall, group chats feel more like an intimate dinner at a friend's house.

People are also turning toward a new crop of social-media platforms that have emerged in the past few years to capitalize on the void left by the deterioration of large platforms. Some of the new entrants are trying to recreate the original, clutter-free social experiences big platforms used to offer, while others are experimenting with radical ideas to reboot the concept from scratch.

So far, none of the new sites can compete with the sheer size of the old, centralized networks, but they do offer some hope. As people grow tired of toxic and addictive platforms that undermine real social connection, this new wave of social-focused upstarts could end up producing a healthier online environment.

Whatever you think of social media's future, it's increasingly clear that the big-platform party is over. But instead of spelling the death of social media, it may be the beginning of a better era. Welcome to the Great Social Media Splintering.

Step into the 'pluriverse'

Major platforms such as Facebook have long abandoned their goal to "bring the world closer together" in favor of "profit-motivated and engagement-inducing designs" that keep us hooked and drive growth, Ben Grosser, an artist and faculty associate at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, told me. A flood of research has found that this shift in the companies' priorities has shaped everyday users for the worse.

One recent study found social media could cause an increase in eating disorders and poor body image in men and women. And researchers have theorized that by lumping people with disparate views together in a faceless melee, the technology that was supposed to bring us together has made us more polarized. Broadly speaking, social media's always-on nature is unnatural. We aren't supposed to talk so much, and posting in front of thousands of people every day causes our ability to communicate to break down.

But for all its flaws, I have depended on big platforms. My job as a freelance journalist hinges on a public audience and my ability to keep tabs on developing news. The fatigue I have felt is therefore partly fueled by another, more-pressing concern: Which social network should I bank on? It isn't that I don't want to post; I just don't know where to do it anymore.

It isn't that I don't want to post; I just don't know where to do it anymore.

In the past year, I've helplessly migrated alongside most of my network from one new platform to another — Discord, Bluesky, Threads. You name it, I've tried it. The pattern is the same: I sign up for the hot, new app, toy with it for a few days, and then quickly abandon it. While widespread platform migrations have taken place successfully over the years — I migrated from Google's Orkut, a popular platform in India and Brazil in the late aughts, to Facebook to Instagram to TikTok — I have never before found myself in no man's land. If none of these platforms are lining up to be the new Facebook, what is the future?

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, who researches digital public infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said there's a reboot taking place now and that social media's future might be "more private and more fragmented." In a white paper published earlier this year, he and his colleagues envisioned a "pluriverse" consisting of existing platforms and an ecosystem of "very small online platforms" — private communities and niche services that host the kind of intimate or interest-specific conversations poorly served by today's digital public sphere.

In a way, the pluriverse is already here. People can be active on half a dozen social-media apps, using each for a unique purpose and audience. On "public" platforms such as LinkedIn and X, formerly Twitter, I carefully curate my presence and use them exclusively as public-broadcasting tools for promotions and outreach. But for socializing, I retreat to various tight-knit, private groups such as iMessage threads and Instagram's Close Friends list, where I can be more spontaneous and personal in what I say. But while this setup is working OK for now, it's a patchwork solution.

Online towns

No matter how fun group chats and breakout social apps such as BeReal are, I've missed the borderless experience that large platforms offer — a place where I can discover viral content, expand my network, and participate in global conversations. Rebecca Rinkevich, the director of the Institute for Rebooting Social Media, doesn't expect giant social platforms to die anytime soon — or ever — since their accessible reach has played a pivotal role in everything from tracking natural crises to activism. But as people's attention splinters across dozens of platforms, she believes "the government and the public will have to work harder to engage in dialogue online," she said.

Mike McCue, Flipboard's CEO, believes that the next big, social platform must bring together the benefits of both worlds, he said: "the quality and trust in small, transparent communities with the ability for those quality conversations to reach millions." But instead of one platform that manages to appease everyone, the future of social media is looking more like a network of platforms that offer people a customized experience. The ideal system would not only allow you to migrate to new social apps without losing your network or profile but also link them together so that you could post on one and a friend could comment on it from another.

The future of social media is looking more like a network of platforms that offer people a customized experience.

Take Threads, for instance, Meta's attempt to build a Twitter replacement. It runs on the ActivityPub protocol, which means that Threads' more than 100 million users will eventually be able to interact with Mastodon, an open-source social platform that uses the same coding system, without ever signing up for it. Similarly, on Mastodon, people can build their own private, little communities, while still having the option to break out and share their content with the rest of the platform's over 10 million users.

Think of it like a town. Maybe your home (account) is in the Threads or Mastodon neighborhood. You spend a lot of time in the privacy of your home talking to close friends in group chats and private lists, but you also stroll about to see what's happening in your neighborhood — a limited group of people you enjoy spending time around online. Sometimes, you venture out to the global town square to hear what people in different communities around the world are talking about. Sometimes you even contribute to the conversation or hang up posters to promote your work.

This kind of open, decentralized system would help break down big platforms' walled gardens, whose one-size-fits-all approach has had vastly detrimental effects. Instead of living in Facebook city under Facebook's laws, the decentralized approach offers everyone more control over the social-media experience and allows people to pick the communities and feeds they're most interested and comfortable in. Though none of these platforms have tried to make money yet, there are a variety of business paths: Like Threads, platforms could turn to in-app ads, or like Mastodon, platforms could turn to grants, donations, and sponsorships. Since the business model shapes how the platform works, people would be free to set up shop on the platforms they prefer.

I've spent the past few months on Mastodon and Bluesky, a Jack Dorsey-backed decentralized social network, and have found them the best bets so far to replace Twitter. Their clutter-free platforms already match the quality of discourse that was on Twitter, albeit not at the same scale. And that's the only problem with these platforms: They aren't compatible with each other or big enough on their own to replace today's giants. While there are efforts to bridge them and allow users to interact across the platforms, none have proved successful.

If these and other decentralized platforms find a way to merge into a larger ecosystem, they will force big platforms to change their tune in order to keep up. And hopefully, that future will yield a more balanced and regulated online lifestyle.

A healthier internet

At its best, Steve Teixeira, the chief product officer at Mozilla, said that social media facilitated connection, regardless of geographic or temporal boundaries, and helps people stay informed, encounter novel ideas, and access vital services. At the moment, though, "it isn't doing any of these things particularly well," he said. The problem is that social media is trying to do too many things at once. Splintered social media would let each of the internet's key functions thrive in its own context — you could stay in touch with family members and keep up with your political representatives without your private memories getting wedged in between political drama.

Instead of living in Facebook city under Facebook's laws, the decentralized approach offers everyone more control over the social-media experience.

The other problem is that users have very little control over what they experience online. Studies have found that news overload from social media can cause stress, anxiety, fatigue, and lack of sleep. By democratizing social media, users can turn those negative health effects around by taking more control over who they're associated with, what they look at in their feeds, and how algorithms are influencing their social experience. And by splintering our time across a variety of platforms — each with a different approach to content moderation — the online communication ecosystem ends up better reflecting the diversity of the people who use it. People who wish to keep their data to themselves can live inside tight-knit circles. Those who don't want a round-the-clock avalanche of polarizing content can change what their feed shows them. Activists looking to spread a message can still reach millions. The list goes on.

"Instead of policymakers and users having to plead, poke, and prod platforms to change," Rajendra-Nicolucci said, "decentralization would enable them to take matters into their own hands, allowing many different answers to the question: 'How should platform X work?' to coexist."

Tailoring social media to people's needs could revolutionize how we spend time online. Swapping out virality-incentivized algorithms in favor of ones that resonate with diverse audiences, for example, can reduce bias and polarization. And experts have found that a collection of networks would "optimize itself solely for public good," rather than fall into the pitfalls of traditional platforms — an unhealthy obsession with metrics and meaningless interactions.

It's hard to predict the future, least of all when it comes to online services where new apps can go viral — and then fail — in a flash, but the breakup of monolithic social-media platforms and the rise of myriad new social experiences has felt like an urgent, long-overdue turn of events. It has propelled millions, including me, to question the status quo — did I need to add a dozen hashtags in hopes of making my sunset picture go viral? — and embrace a healthier relationship with social media. No one knows what the next major social platform will look like. But until it emerges, I expect to continue living a splintered and nomadic online social life.

Shubham Agarwal is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad, India whose work has appeared in Wired, The Verge, Fast Company, and more.

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