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.
The shift began 20 years ago or so, when networked computers became sufficiently ubiquitous that people began using them to build and manage relationships. Social networking had its problems—collecting friends instead of, well, being friendly with them, for example—but they were modest compared with what followed. Slowly and without fanfare, around the end of the aughts, social media took its place. The change was almost invisible, but it had enormous consequences. Instead of facilitating the modest use of existing connections—largely for offline life (to organize a birthday party, say)—social software turned those connections into a latent broadcast channel. All at once, billions of people saw themselves as celebrities, pundits, and tastemakers.