The end of social networks as we've known them

The end of social networks as we’ve known them

On the 18th of November 2022, Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, announced that he would be reinstating the accounts of nearly all of the platform’s users who had been banned for violating the site’s terms of service – a very polite way of describing what most people would call ‘hate speech’, harassment, or worse. 

That was one step too far, enough to convince me to abandon my Twitter account, my nearly 50,000 ‘followers’, and the 13,000 folks I followed, migrating to the decentralised, federated and openly communitarian Mastodon.

In the year since, I’ve built up a few thousand ‘followers’, followed a few hundred, and have grown to enjoy the spaciousness of another flavour of social connectivity – one that doesn’t amplify my anger in order to increase my engagement.

I am not alone in this shift into a ‘post-social’ era. Although it seems likely that 2023 will be most remembered for the rise and rise of ChatGPT, something else has been happening, something that we haven’t really looked at, even though we’ve all participated in it: the end of social networks as we’ve known them. 

Connecting people at global scale – as we did in the 2010s – precipitated a dilemma we’d never anticipated, largely because it’s too difficult to think socially beyond a community of around 150 individuals.

Above that seemingly natural limit – ‘Dunbar’s Number’ – we can’t connect meaningfully. But we can perform. As it grew, social media increasingly became a platform for performances on a global scale: the latest meme, a public pillorying of a celebrity, or network of reinforcing conspiracy theories. 

While these certainly represent forms of communication, they are not connections. We can maintain ‘parasocial’ relations with these communications and global communities that cluster around them. But parasocial relationships lack the reinforcement of the real, and have a tendency to implode, taking their ‘para-communities’ with them.

None of this is to say that Facebook, Twitter/X or Snapchat will soon go out of business. Their role has permanently altered, and all face stiff competition from a social media platform which recognises that social media at scale is purely performative: TikTok, with its endless algorithmic delivery of a gallery of globally curated performances, embodying Guy Dubord’s The Society of the Spectacle in software.

But the ‘infinite jest’ of TikTok is neither community, nor connection. For that we need – and have found – a range of ‘post-social’ tools, some of them provided by the ‘old school’ social networks.

During the early 2010s, at just the same moment that social networks were exploding in usage, it became clear that a range of people – particularly younger people – wanted a place to be ‘invisible’. A space they could be themselves, with their friends, connected but unobserved.

For a teenager, Facebook means performative behavior for parents and grandparents, teachers and potential employers. That’s not a safe space to explore a self still very much in process. Instead, teenagers transformed the way they used tools supporting online gaming communities – in particular, Discord, with its capacity to provide both messaging boards, real-time text chat, even audio and video connections.

But beyond all these technical bells and whistles, Discord offered privacy: you had to be invited into a Discord. You couldn’t just ‘drop in’. That gave Discord groups much of the flavour and earnestness of the kinds of clubhouses that kids have been constructing for centuries. Private clubs, private conversations, fostering deep connections.

Although 2023 will be most remembered for the rise and rise of ChatGPT, something else has been happening – the end of social networks as we’ve known them. 

It wasn’t long before adults realised they had the same need for private conversations. Coordination-by-Facebook-Group reached limits of size and politeness (performative politeness being a big part of social media within a community).

Adults needed a space for real-time communications where they could be fast, open, honest and, from time to time, angry. Mark Zuckerberg had seen the weak signals of this trend in Facebook’s usage data, prompting the purchase of the tiny startup behind WhatsApp in 2014 for US $19 billion. 

Today, Facebook looks less like a monolithic social media website than three messaging platforms: Instagram/Threads (performative FOMO), Facebook Messenger (connected but not particularly private) and WhatsApp (connected and private). It’s something for everyone, whether you want to parasocially share your latest #blessed moment with the world, or get barking mad and personal about the insulting behavior from one of the lazy parents in the school dropoff circle. Those nuances in use are a clear sign that social networks are evolving as a result of our growing understanding of how to use (and abuse) connectivity.

All of this messaging and connectivity is about to encounter the headwinds of algorithmically generated and promoted disinformation. 2024 features national elections in Taiwan (January), India (April-May) and the United States (November). (For a taste of what’s to come you don’t have to look far…The recent Voice referendum was almost overwhelmed by misinformation.)

All of this messaging and connectivity is about to encounter the headwinds of algorithmically generated and promoted disinformation.

As a result, the disinformation spigots will be wide open for national and extra-national players seeking to influence outcomes to suit their own interests.

Disinformation and social networks are a heady mix; people are eager to believe, to prove themselves to be on the ‘inside’ of a para-community. That’s what gave us Gamergate and Qanon and the January 6th US Capitol Insurrection.

It’s easy to imagine that many similar such spontaneous para-community formations will pop up over the next year, as AI and social networks and deep profiling of individuals (thank you Google and Facebook for that little gift that keeps on giving) allows the careful targeting of messaging designed to feed individuals just the tidbits they need to feel deeply connected to a para-community of other believers.

If this all starts to feel vaguely religious, we need look no further than the origins of that word. Religare is Latin for ‘to bind together’.

Communities are the ties that bind us to one another; they’re constructed by proximity and consanguinity and affinity. We travel together because we are related in space, or by blood, or by what we believe. That’s always been true, and it’s not going to change.

But we now have ways to broaden our connections through affiliation with global para-communities, or we can narrow our scope as we focus on private connections in our neighborhoods and with our families.

Where these get confused, where we cross the boundaries between para-communities and real communities, there’s going to be emotion, conflict, and reaction. We need to remember this as we head into a future that’s connected, but both more public and more private than before.

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