For as long as many of us can remember, the Internet has been a single entity, a vast digital sea where we could navigate freely between its various islands. Social networks stood tall and united, giving us separate but unified spaces to connect and share.
Yet, it seems that unfettered freedom of expression and connecting openly with others on the assumption of trust in the pursuit of sharing information and opinion that expands the overall human experience – the era of the social Internet these past twenty years we’ve grown so fond of – is coming to an end.
This sentiment introduces an article in The Verge last month by editor-in-chief David Pierce that I’ve been thinking quite a bit about. Pierce writes that there’s a notable shift in the way we use the web, particularly when it comes to social media.
The once-dominant public platforms, which garnered billions of users globally, are now witnessing the rise of smaller, private, and more tailored networks. The migration is evident, Pierce writes: from mainstream spaces like X formerly known as Twitter, to niche platforms such as Mastodon, users are actively seeking communities that cater to their specific interests, needs, and values.
So, why the shift? Privacy concerns, platform fatigue, and the desire for genuine connections are among the major factors pushing users towards these more exclusive spaces. With constant reports of data breaches and misinformation campaigns, very bad actors and relentless and irrelevant advertising, people have grown wary of the broader platforms. In addition, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of massive social platforms often dilutes personal connections. By contrast, smaller communities offer a curated experience, which many find more meaningful.
I think, too, that Twitter/X after October 2022 when Elon Musk took over is a huge catalyst for the type of change Pierce describes.
X is rapidly evolving into a place that is rife with untrustworthiness. From the capriciousness of its proprietor making significant platform changes on a whim to anxiety over trust and safety issues on that platform following its change from being called ‘Twitter’, it’s fast becoming a place that increasingly edges more people towards searching for an alternative.
Is there life instead of or after X?
Such concerns and the evolution underway prompts an essential question: Where should we go next to connect and engage with our friends that is trustworthy and where we’d feel safe? The reality is that there might not be a singular answer. Instead of one unified digital space where everyone congregates, the future could see a fragmented social web. Indeed, I would say this is more likely than not.
The early social web enabled open conversations between strangers, but over time large tech companies took control and optimized their platforms for profit and growth rather than users and authentic engagement. Many people wonder now if the open social web is ending.
Some have moved to decentralized apps like Mastodon and would-be successors to Twitter/X such as Bluesky with 668K+ members as of August 20 and the very niche T2 which currently has less than 15,000 members, seeking to regain the spirit of the early Internet. But such niche apps lack the reach and familiarity of the major platforms. They require you to be willing to experiment and to be part of literal start-ups that are rapidly evolving where you might not know if the lights will still be on from one day to the next.
Not only that, we must remember that new niche platforms are not charities or non-profits: they need to be profitable to continue operating and grow especially if users want to be able to do the kinds of good things they could do on other, established platforms. Traditional business models see advertising as a revenue mainstay, which collides with what users want which is no advertising of the type that currently is rampant in quantity and the relentless pimping dressed up as opportunity for users.
Instead, they suck in your personal data and use the insights gleaned from behavioural and other analyses to pimp more stuff at you.
I would seriously consider paying a subscription to a social network I believe in if that were a model on offer without any advertising.
The question going forward is where should people turn to have meaningful connections and share ideas online when the dominant social platforms no longer seem to serve that purpose. More decentralization and user control may be the answer, but getting there requires rethinking how we connect and engage online.
It might seem challenging at first, navigating multiple platforms instead of just one or two. But there’s beauty in this fragmentation, Pierce writes. Each platform can be more dedicated, more focused, and more attuned to its community’s needs, he says. This means fewer blanket algorithms determining what you should see and more genuine, user-driven content.
While the idea of a fragmented social web might sound daunting, perhaps it’s a chance for us to rediscover the roots of the Internet. In its early days, the web was a series of isolated communities. Over time, these communities were overshadowed by tech giants and massive platforms. Now, as we potentially circle back to a web of diverse, smaller communities, we might just find a more authentic, personal online experience.
As we witness and experience the twilight of the first Internet era, it’s worth contemplating that there might not be a singular next big thing. The future could hold myriad platforms, including X, each catering to different needs and interests. It’s likely to be survival of the fittest over time.
So what would it be for you? Truth or Consequences as the road sign in the photo at the top of the page indicates? It’s a good metaphor for the choices confronting us. Perhaps we don’t need to choose one or the other when we can, actually, embrace the meanings and have both. And you’ll get help if you ask: the ‘Socorro’ that’s also mentioned (as an aside, both are cities in the US state of New Mexico).
It’s a brave new world out there, and maybe it’s time we embrace the changes we’re seeing and explore the mosaic of the fragmented social web that is emerging, and that we can help shape.
- Read “So where are we all supposed to go now?“, The Verge, July 3, 2023.
- If you are curious and would like to kick the tyres with T2 or Bluesky, I have some invitation codes available. Ask for one by emailing this address with your request, stating which social network (this is an either/or choice), and with a concise explainer of why you would like to experiment. This offer is valid until 11:59pm UTC on August 31, 2023 and will end sooner if all codes are asked for before then.