The Internet age is over and we are seeing it happen in near real time. Twitter has been on a relentless plunge for years, especially since Elon Musk bought the company last fall and messed things up. Reddit has spent the last few months attempting to self-immolate in a similar fashion, alienating developers and users, hoping to survive by sticking their heads in the sand until the battle is over. (For a while I thought Reddit was going to be the last good place to stay… no.) TikTok still holds the upper hand and could get banned in some meaningful way. seems to be on the rise. Instagram has turned into an entertainment platform. No one is on Facebook anymore.
Some might argue that this is the natural demise of certain parts of the Internet. We have been answering a question for the past 20 years. What if you put everyone on the planet in a room and let them all talk? This might be better. But the way and speed with which it all changed has left a huge hole in the internet for everyone. Over the years, we’ve all been playing together on the Internet. And now it’s gone.
Why is this happening now? In fact, there are many reasons, most of which are at least somewhat defensible. The economy has taken a turn for the worse, and after more than a decade of low interest rates and access to near-unlimited and near-free funding, businesses have found their sources of funding to be fewer and more picky than ever. These investors also want a substantial return on their funding, so all of these companies will have to switch from ‘grow whatever it takes’ to ‘actually get some return’. I have. Few social networking companies have ever actually made a profit, so they race for new features and focus on things like quarterly earnings.
The rise of AI is also disrupting all these companies. Large-scale language models from companies like OpenAI and Google are built on data collected from the open web. Suddenly, making all users and content public and easily discoverable went from growth hack to capitalist suicidal act. Companies in the industry are closing the walls as they want to sell their data to AI providers rather than collect it all for free. Much of Reddit’s current turmoil stems from CEO Steve Huffman’s assertion that the platform is packed with useful information and that “there is no need to give all of that value for free to some of the world’s biggest companies.” No,” the company said. On Saturday, Elon Musk introduced Twitter’s new login gates and page limits “to combat extreme levels of data scraping and system manipulation.”
Taken together, the social web is changing in three key ways. It’s a change from public to private. It’s moving from growth and engagement, which broadly includes building great products that people love, to increasing revenue regardless of trade-offs. And it’s turning into an entertainment business. There’s no money in connecting people, but it turns out there’s luck in inserting ads between vertically scrolling videos that many people watch. So the era of “social media” has been replaced by the era of “media with comment sections” and now everything is an entertainment platform. Or maybe you’re trying to pay. sometimes both. It’s crazy.
When it comes to how humans connect with each other, what comes next seems to be group chats, private messaging, and forums, taking us back to the days when we mostly just talked to people we knew. Perhaps it’s a way to live a better, less troubled life. Perhaps feeds, algorithms, and “global town squares” were a bad idea. But I found myself desperately searching for new places where everyone felt like they were there. It’s the place where you can hear NBA rumors, hear about cool new AI apps, and chat with friends, colleagues, and Nicki Minaj at the same time. For a while there were some platforms where it felt like everyone was in the same space. Now nothing.
Group chats, private messaging and forums will be next
I’d like to follow up with, “And then there’s something new!” But I don’t know if it is. There’s nothing left on the internet that feels like a good, wholesome, worthwhile place to hang out. It’s not just that there aren’t enough popular places. In fact, there are enough people looking for new homes on the internet that I don’t think it would be too difficult to engineer a network effect. The platform just doesn’t exist. It’s not LinkedIn or Tumblr or startups like Post or Vero or Spoutable or Hive Social. It’s never Clubhouse or BeReal. it doesn’t exist.
Long term, I’m bullish on “fediverse” apps like Mastodon and Bluesky. Because I absolutely believe in the potential of a decentralized universe that uses the social web, ActivityPub and other open protocols to bring us together without forcing us to live indoors. A company’s business model. Used properly, these tools provide the right mix of “everyone is here” and “you are in control.”
Fediverse isn’t ready to take over yet
So what if not? For apps like WhatsApp and Signal, at least there’s a good reason for beefing up their privacy features. WhatsApp has added social features over time, especially channels, a one-to-many way where creators and brands can have a conversation with all their followers at once. (Telegram is also doing some interesting work in this area.) But it’s news feeds, not social. These are still chat apps, intended for him to talk to one or several people at a time.
Discord is probably the best tool for capturing your social needs right now. This is arguably the best Reddit alternative for him that we have. It’s a clever mix of a chat app and a broadcasting tool, perhaps a place where like-minded people can meet and connect. But have you ever joined his Discord with thousands of people?It’s pure chaos and you either have to give your life to maintain it or you decide to miss it all is. Discord’s moderation tools are also a mess, and everyone is still obsessed with changing usernames.
The age of social networking, despite its turmoil, has worked like no other in bringing people together. You don’t have to choose a server or declare your interest in advance. You just show up, set your password, and get to work. Because everyone was together, these platforms made it easy to find people you liked and content you were interested in. They took the time to learn about you and were able to proactively show you the people and the content before you even asked.
Of course, this had a big drawback. Retweets and quote tweets made it easier to spread good content, but they also made it easier to mass-harass someone on Twitter. Meta’s knowledge of users only makes your Explore page more interesting and expands your information available to advertisers. I don’t know if it’s possible to get the good without the bad, and I think it’s possible that the bad outweighs the good. (As a white American male, I also experience much less bad things than most users. If I wasn’t so lucky here, I would feel differently about the end of this era.) I suspect.) But I can’t help. But at least I think it’s possible to do better.
Perhaps we should all accept the collapse of social networks and perhaps my (and we) global need for water coolers is a remnant that we will all be rid of in a few years. It may be nothing more than an emotion. But even before this era is over for good, before Twitter and Reddit turned into MySpace and Friendfeed and basically disappeared from my life, I find myself nostalgic for what it once was. Still, it may not last long. I miss you all and I don’t know if I will see you again.