Lately on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, my timeline is filled with bland posts that revolve around the same few topics, like water swirling in a drain. Last week, for example, the chatter was dominated by conversations about Taylor Swift’s romance with football player Travis Kelce. If you tried to talk about anything else, the platform’s algorithmic feed seemed to push you into irrelevance. Users who pay for Elon Musk’s blue check verification system now dominate the platform, often with far-right comments and outright misinformation; Musk rewards these users monetarily based on the engagement their posts generate, regardless of their veracity. The decay of the system is evident in the spread of fake news and mislabeled videos related to the Hamas attack on Israel.
Elsewhere online, things are equally bleak. Instagram feed shows months-old posts and product ads instead of photos of friends. Google search is full of junk results and SEO hackers have ruined the trick of adding “Reddit” to searches to find human-generated answers. Meanwhile, Facebook’s parent company Meta, in its latest bid to gain relevance, is reportedly developing AI chatbots with various “sassy” personalities to be added to its apps, including a D.&D role-playing game. Dungeon Master based on Snoop Dogg. The prospect of interacting with such a character sounds about as appealing as texting one of those spambots asking if they have the right number.
The social network Web as we knew it, a place where we consumed the posts of our fellow humans and published in return, seems to be over. X’s precipitous decline is the harbinger of a new era of the Internet that simply seems less fun than it used to be. Do you remember having fun online? It meant stumbling upon a website you’d never imagined existed, getting a meme you hadn’t already seen regurgitated a dozen times, and maybe even playing a little video game in your browser. These experiences don’t seem as available now as they were a decade ago. In large part, this is because a handful of giant social networks have taken over the open space of the Internet, centralizing and homogenizing our experiences through their own opaque and changing content rating systems. When those platforms decline, as Twitter has under Elon Musk, there is no other comparable platform in the ecosystem to replace them. Some alternative sites, including Bluesky and Discord, have tried to absorb disgruntled Twitter users. But like sprouts on the rainforest floor, blocked by the canopy, online spaces that offer new experiences lack much room to grow.
A Twitter friend told me about the platform’s current state: “I’ve actually experienced a lot of pain over it.” It may seem strange to feel so nostalgic for a site that users routinely refer to as a “hell site.” But I’ve heard the same thing from many others who once considered Twitter, for all its shortcomings, a vital social landscape. Some of them still tweet regularly, but their messages are less likely to appear in my feed with a lot of Swift. Musk recently tweeted that the company’s algorithm “attempts to optimize time spent on The new paradigm benefits the tech industry’s “yarn guys,” “what’s your favorite Marvel movie” publications, and single-topic commentators like Derek Guy, who tweets incessantly about men’s clothing. Algorithmic recommendations make already popular accounts and topics even more so, excluding the smaller, magpie-like voices that made the old version of Twitter such a lively destination. (Meanwhile, Guy has received so much algorithmic promotion under Musk that he’s amassed more than half a million followers.)
The Internet today feels emptier, like an echoing hallway, even when it’s filled with more content than ever. It also feels less informally informative. Twitter in its heyday was a source of real-time information, the first place to find out about events that were only later reported in the press. Blog posts and television news channels added tweets to demonstrate prevailing cultural trends or debates. Today, they do the same thing with TikTok posts (see the numerous local news reports about dangerous and possibly fake “TikTok trends”), but the TikTok feed actively dampens news and political content, in part because its Parent company is indebted to the Chinese government. censorship policies. Instead, the app pushes us to scroll through another dozen videos of cooking demonstrations or funny animals. Under the guise of fostering social community and user-generated creativity, it prevents direct interaction and discovery.
According to Eleanor Stern, a TikTok video essayist with almost a hundred thousand followers, part of the problem is that social media is more hierarchical than it used to be. “There’s a divide that didn’t exist before between audiences and creators,” Stern said. The platforms that have the most traction among young users today (YouTube, TikTok and Twitch) function as streaming stations, with a creator posting a video to his or her millions of followers; What followers have to say to each other doesn’t matter like it did on the old Facebook or Twitter. Social media “used to be more of a place for conversation and reciprocity,” Stern said. Now the conversation is not strictly necessary, just looking and listening.
Posting on social media might also be a less casual act these days, because we’ve seen the ramifications of blurring the line between physical and digital life. Instagram ushered in the era of online self-commodification (it was the selfie platform), but TikTok and Twitch have fueled it. Selfies are no longer enough; Video-based platforms show your body, your speech and gestures, and the room you are in, perhaps even in real time. Everyone is forced to play the role of influencer. The barrier to entry is higher and the pressure to adapt is stronger. It is not surprising, in this environment, that fewer people take the risk of publishing and more people adapt to passive consumer roles.