Nearly two decades ago, Facebook was all the rage on college campuses as a way for students to keep in touch. Then came Twitter, where people post what they had for breakfast, and Instagram, where friends share photos to keep each other connected.
Today, Instagram and Facebook feeds are full of ads and sponsored posts. TikTok and Snapchat are flooded with videos of influencers promoting dish soap and dating apps. Soon, the Twitter posts gaining the most popularity will come primarily from subscribers who pay for exposure and other perks.
Social media has become less social in many ways. Over the years, as the biggest websites have become more “corporate,” it’s become harder and harder to see the kind of posts where people tell friends and family about their lives. Instead of seeing messages and photos from friends and family about their vacations or lavish dinners, users of Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and Snapchat now regularly view professional content from brands, influencers, and other paid placements.
The change has implications for both the big social networking companies and how people communicate with each other digitally. But it also calls into question a core idea: the online platform. For years, the concept of a platform—a public-facing, all-in-one website where people spend most of their time—has dominated. But as large social networks prioritize connecting people with brands rather than connecting them with other people, some users have begun to seek out community-oriented sites and apps dedicated to specific hobbies and issues.
“Platforms as we know them are over,” said Zizi Papacharissi, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who teaches a class on social media. “Their utility is outdated.”
The shift helps explain why some social networking companies that continue to have billions of users and bring in billions of dollars in revenue are now exploring new avenues for business. Elon Musk-owned Twitter has been pushing people and brands to pay $8 to $1,000 a month to become a subscriber. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, is entering the immersive online world known as the Metaverse.
For users, this means that instead of spending all their time on one or a few large social networks, they move to smaller, more focused sites. These include Mastodon, which is essentially a Twitter clone that cuts into neighborhoods; Nextdoor, a social network for neighbors to express sympathy for everyday problems like local potholes; and apps like Truth Social, which was founded by former President Donald J. Founded by Donald J. Trump, it is regarded as a social network for conservatives.
“It’s not picking one network to rule them all — that’s crazy Silicon Valley logic,” said Ethan Zukerman, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The future is that you become part of dozens of different communities, because as humans, that’s what we are.”
Twitter automatically responded to media inquiries with the poop emoji, but did not comment on the evolution of the social network. Meta declined to comment, and TikTok did not respond to a request for comment. Snap, the maker of Snapchat, said that while its app has grown, connecting people with their friends and family remains its main function.
A few years ago, some of the biggest names in social media, including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, predicted a shift to smaller, more centralized networks.
In 2019, Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post that Private Messages and Groups It is the fastest growing area of online communication. Dorsey, who steps down as Twitter CEO in 2021, has been pushing for a so-called decentralized social network that would give people control over what they see and the communities they participate in.he recently Nosta social media site based on this principle.
Over the past year, technologists and academics have also focused on smaller social networks.exist a dissertation Published last month, titled “The Three-Legged Stool: A Manifesto for a Smaller, Dense Internet,” Mr Zuckerman and other academics outlined how companies of the future could run small networks at low cost.
They also propose creating an app that would essentially act as the Swiss Army knife of social networking by allowing people to switch between the sites they use, including Twitter, Mastodon, Reddit and smaller networks.One such application, called gobo Developed by the MIT Media Lab and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it will be released next month.
The tricky part for users is finding newer, smaller networks because they’re not well known. But broader social networks, like Mastodon or Reddit, often act as gateways to smaller communities.For example, when signing up for Mastodon, people can access the extensive listincluding content related to gaming, food, and activism.
Mastodon CEO Eugen Rochko says users make more than a billion posts a month in its community, and there are no algorithms or ads changing people’s feeds.
One of the great benefits of small networks is that they can create forums for specific communities, including the marginalized. Ava, founded in 2011, is a social network for members of the LGBTQ community in countries surrounding the Persian Gulf, where homosexuality is considered illegal.other small networks such as mailbox dan app for movie lovers to share their thoughts on movies, focusing on special interests.
Smaller communities can also relieve some of the social pressures that come with using social media, especially for young people. Over the past decade, stories have emerged — including at congressional hearings on the dangers of social media — about teens developing eating disorders after trying to live up to “Instagram perfect” photos and videos watched on TikTok .
The idea that a new social media site could become an app that everyone can use seems unrealistic, experts say. When young people finish experimenting with new networks — such as BeReal, the photo-sharing app that was popular with teens last year but is now losing millions of active users — they move on to the next one.
“They’re not swayed by the first shiny platform that comes along,” Ms. Papacharissi said.
People’s online identities will become increasingly fragmented across multiple sites, she added. To talk about professional accomplishments, use LinkedIn. To play video games with other gamers, you can use Discord. To discuss news stories, you can use Artifact.
“We’re interested in smaller groups of people talking to each other about specific things,” Ms. Papacharissi said.
More small networks may be on the horizon. Last year, Harvard University, where Mr. Zuckerberg founded Facebook as a student in 2004, began a research program dedicated to rebooting social media. The program helps students create and experiment with new networks with others.
An application that appears from within the program, reduce, which allows users to publish only 100 posts in their timeline lifetime. The idea is for people to feel connected in an environment where their time together is seen as a precious and limited resource, not unlike the likes of Facebook and Twitter that use infinite scrolling interfaces to keep users engaged for as long as possible. Traditional social networks are different.
“This is a performing arts experiment,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard University who initiated the study. “It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t necessarily have to be like this when you see it.”