With the launch of yet another new social media platform — Donald Trump’s blatant right-wing Twitter clone Truth Social — the social media landscape has never been more crowded, complicated and fragmented than it is now. More than ever, we’ve reached an inflection point where social media is broken, and it’s hard to imagine it getting better.
It was just 15 years ago that Myspace broke open the social media arms race, beating back challengers like Friendster and Xanga for market share and name recognition. Just a few years later, Facebook took all of Myspace’s friends and became the dominant player (and to be clear, remains the dominant player by a wide margin).
But even Facebook isn’t what it used to be, as the social media platform to rule them all recently lost users for the first time in its existence, shedding around 500,000 daily users in the final months of 2021 after nearly two decades of never-ending gains. That said, the service still pulls around 1.9 billion people globally, so it’s not exactly an exodus. But still, the cracks are beginning to show, and Facebook’s core user base tends to skew older and older with each passing year.
Politics is one of the key drivers behind the fragmentation we’ve seen in recent years, and it’s led to a crush of new services touting themselves as a home for conservatives, and a safe space for “free speech,” under the pretense that more mainstream services like Twitter and Facebook skew “liberal.”
That is a dubious and complicated claim, as the top-shared articles on Facebook are almost always dominated by right-wing actors such as Breitbart, Dan Bongino and The Daily Wire — which doesn’t exactly fit the narrative of a “liberal” slant. Not to mention, Twitter was always Trump’s personal platform of choice, to the degree he literally launched his own clone platform after being ousted from Twitter for posts deemed to have helped inspire and incite the violent January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.
Services like Truth Social, Parler, Gettr and Gab are all vying for a piece of the outraged conservative pie, as many of those users seek out new safe spaces in niche platforms. But the services are all vying for a slice of a slice of that pie, and even competing further with messaging apps like Discord and Telegram that have stepped into that void with growing conservative chat groups.
Then there’s the more complicated and primal fact that lots of people like to use social media to argue and troll. But if everyone on the platform agrees with you, and there simply aren’t any libs there to own, is it still fun? As MSNBC reported, many of the conservative players who jumped to those services after leaving (or being kicked off) major platforms have seen an eventual decline in reach by trying to rely solely on conservative-skewing services.
These new niche players can be an answer, but they’re not the answer.
Looking beyond politics, there’s also the fact the next generation of social media users aren’t defaulting to what their parents (or older siblings) have used in Facebook and Twitter, and instead look to be attracted to more visual mediums. Younger users skew to video and photo-focused platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok. That doesn’t look to be a trend that’s slowing, as the splits among platforms get even more nuanced, across politics, age and — most importantly — what users are actually looking for in the first place.
In the past, you couldn’t get your friends’ new photos or an update on someone’s love life without also seeing your uncle’s latest QAnon conspiracy manifesto mixed right alongside it on the Facebook feed. Now you can leave that grind entirely and just follow your pals on Instagram to see their photos or set up a For You page loaded with only the baseball or funny dating TikToks you want to see.
Put simply: You don’t have to be on Facebook, or Twitter to stay plugged in. If all you want are right-wing political memes and some half-baked disinformation, there are platforms for that. If you want the old-school social chaos, the big players are still there. If you want only pretty people in pretty pictures, delete the rest and go with Insta.
There are simply too many platforms and too many people who have no more interest in being part of the bigger tents, for good and bad. We’re losing the concept of an open square where everyone shares the same space and can have an exchange of ideas and opinions. But we’ve arguably lost that already through radicalization, partisanship and the proliferation of misinformation, even if we did all still share a platform. There is no more A1 front page for news —digital or otherwise — when half the country can’t agree on what’s “true” anyway.
Social media has simultaneously sped up and caught up to the problems tearing at the fabric of society. It’s broken, and in many ways so are we. So, send a “truth (or retruth),” get Gettr, or keep on tweeting. We can all pick our own poison.