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Social media was doomed from the start

Should have stuck to “connecting, not publishing”: a scene from The Social Network (2010)

Twitter is “in chaos” under Elon Musk’s ownership, says Ian Bogost in The Atlantic, and Facebook is faring no better: it has lost “hundreds of billions of dollars in value” and Mark Zuckerberg has had to sack 11,000 employees. The thing is, “social media was never a natural way to work, play and socialise”. When it first emerged in the early 2000s with sites like Friendster and MySpace, a different term was used: social networks. As the name suggests, social networks “involved connecting, not publishing”; they were about building or deepening relationships, “mostly with people you knew”. Zuckerberg’s original vision for Facebook, after all, was to “connect every person in the world”.

But around the advent of the smartphone in 2009, “networking” was replaced with “media”. Growing platforms like Instagram and Twitter weren’t about connecting friends and colleagues, but publishing your thoughts and photos, often for the widest audience possible. The “Rolodex of contacts” of old-school social networks was swapped for a “hyperactive” mass of churning content. The results were disastrous. Users discovered that the more emotionally charged, polarising or “just plain fraudulent” their content was, the better it spread. People began to think that they deserved an audience for every tweet or photo. But this is a “positively unhinged” view of human sociality: we simply “aren’t meant to talk to one another this much”. If Twitter does fail, it’ll be one step towards winning back “the soul of social life”.