It’s over. Facebook is in decline, Twitter in chaos. Mark Zuckerberg’s empire has lost hundreds of billions of dollars in value and laid off 11,000 people, with its ad business in peril and its metaverse fantasy in irons. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has caused advertisers to pull spending and power users to shun the platform (or at least to tweet a lot about doing so). It’s never felt more plausible that the age of social media might end—and soon.
Now that we’ve washed up on this unexpected shore, we can look back at the shipwreck that left us here with fresh eyes. Perhaps we can find some relief: Social media was never a natural way to work, play, and socialize, though it did become second nature. The practice evolved via a weird mutation, one so subtle that it was difficult to spot happening in the moment.
A global broadcast network where anyone can say anything to anyone else as often as possible, and where such people have come to think they deserve such a capacity, or even that withholding it amounts to censorship or suppression—that’s just a terrible idea from the outset. And it’s a terrible idea that is entirely and completely bound up with the concept of social media itself: systems erected and used exclusively to deliver an endless stream of content.
But now, perhaps, it can also end. The possible downfall of Facebook and Twitter (and others) is an opportunity—not to shift to some equivalent platform, but to embrace their ruination, something previously unthinkable.
A long time ago, many social networks walked the Earth. Six Degrees launched in 1997, named after a Pulitzer-nominated play based on a psychological experiment. It shut down soon after the dot-com crash of 2000—the world wasn’t ready yet. Friendster arose from its ashes in 2002, followed by MySpace and LinkedIn the next year, then Hi5 and Facebook in 2004, the latter for students at select colleges and universities. That year also saw the arrival of Orkut, made and operated by Google. Bebo launched in 2005; eventually both AOL and Amazon would own it. Google Buzz and Google+ were born and then killed. You’ve probably never heard of some of these, but before Facebook was everywhere, many of these services were immensely popular.