Reader Request Week 2023 #2: The Future of Social Media

John Scalzi

Stars & Arrow asks:

I’m curious about your thoughts on the future of social media, beyond the current doom-spiral of Twitter and the struggle to figure out a replacement for that.

I keep thinking of all the ways social media has been used in the past, particularly in countries where speech is more limited, and lament the loss of the digital public square that Twitter used to represent for so many. Yet I don’t believe that the fall of Twitter necessarily means the death of that public square.

So what do you think is likely to take on that role? Another social media platform? Or something else altogether?

It’s interesting to be asked that at the moment, because I’ve started playing over at BlueSky, which is currently an invite-only startup-intending-to-be-federated social media site that has the sort of funky energy of the early Twitter, i.e., before it was swamped by bots and fascists. It’s super early days there (like, it’s been around for less than a month), but already there’s a sense of community, with in-jokes, weird lingo and a general queer, feral openness that I’m really digging. It’s fun to play there in a way that it no longer is at most other social media sites.

Will it “replace” Twitter? Probably not. But! Hear me out! I don’t think Twitter particularly needs to be replaced at the moment. First, despite its current extreme mismanagement, Twitter will likely stumble on for a while yet. Second, and more importantly, Twitter was and is a product of its particular time, a moment when “microblogging”, i.e., an easy-to-use, easy-to-scroll alternative to comparatively clunky blog sites and/or earlier social media iterations like MySpace, was the next step in online social evolution. There’s a reason why Facebook and Twitter and Instagram were all massive hits, and consolidated so much of online activity to them.

But they also ate the Internet, along with Reddit and Tik Tok, and as the saying goes, the online world now consists of five big sites, each of which mostly show repurposed bits from the other four. Twitter is now in active decline thanks to the incompetence of its new owner, Facebook and Instagram feel like they’re treading water, Tik-Tok feels like it just crested, and Reddit — well, who knows with Reddit, it’s always been a bit of a chaos engine, for good and ill.

And they all, either intentionally or otherwise, worked to drive out quality elsewhere online, whether it was Facebook convincing creators to abandon their own sites for theirs (and then eventually charging them to access their own audiences) and/or convincing site to “pivot to video” based on fraudulent stats, or Reddit replacing single-interest sites with subreddits, or Twitter essentially replacing blogs for a lot of people. Couple that with Google’s abandonment of its Reader app, which lots and lots of people used to visit individual blogs and sites (no joke, when Reader went away, so did 40% of the direct traffic on Whatever), and we end up where we are today, with an oligopoly of social media sites controlling the majority of the social traffic, and everyone else squabbling over crumbs.

And, I don’t know, what if we didn’t do that anymore? People may or may not like Mastodon, the social media format beloved by a certain stripe of nerds, but one of the things that is absolutely compelling about it to me is the idea of “federation,” where the whole network is distributed rather than being under one company’s purview. It operates under the ActivityPub protocol, which is an open protocol; BlueSky, as I understand it, works on a variant of this. The upshot of it is rather than five companies sucking up all the attention — and any money that comes from it — there can be thousands of independent and/or specialty sites that nevertheless can communicate and share information over an agreed-upon protocol.

I kind of like that. I like the idea, for example, that could be the place from which I could do everything — long pieces like this one, short bits like on Twitter, closed conversations with friends like I have on my private Facebook account, and so on. Other people could run Discord-like servers, show off Twitch-like streams or present video like TikTok or YouTube, and some or all of it could be distributed to anyone who wants to see it or subscribe. Seems like it would be easier for me, anyway.

(Yes, I know RSS exists. As far as I can see the ActivityPub protocol is more robust than RSS is in its functionality.)

In the meantime, on a personal level, I don’t mind if Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Reddit/TikTok have competition for my and anyone else’s attention, and there’s some moderate-to-radical balkanization of social media. I mean, hell, I’m already spread out across several sites, including my own, and I have slightly different uses — and public personas — for each of them. How I’m presenting on, say, Twitter, is not exactly how I present on Mastodon, or on Facebook (either the public or private versions), or on Instagram, or, now, on BlueSky.

As I mention every time I note any of this sort of stuff, none of these personas are false; they are all really me, they’re just really me with certain attributes pushed forward or back. This is more work, mind you, and someone who is not Very Online like me might find it exhausting, which I get, since I find it exhausting sometimes myself. But the value I get out of these individual sites makes it worth it.

Here in 2023, if I had to guess, I’d say I’ll likely be spending less time on Twitter, more time on my private Facebook account, and possibly a lot more time on BlueSky, which, as noted above, is a ton of fun at the moment. And no matter what, I will always be here. It’s home, you know?

— JS

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Leave in the comment thread at this link.)

17 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2023 #2: The Future of Social Media”

  1. As someone with find memories of the blog era, i can definitely get behind getting away from the current walled-garden approach we’ve been dealing with more recently. I’d certainly appreciate not needing to sign up to every new interation of social media in order to keep in contact with folks & communities as everyone tries new options.

    Thank you for answering!

  2. The protocol which powers BlueSky is in a similar vein to Activity Pub, its called “AT Protocol”, or “Authenticated Transfer Protocol”.

    It is fairly different in operation to Activity Pub – from what my admittedly cursory reading of the protocol indicates – but it does seem to have some specific benefits over Activity Pub, and that is its implementation of the W3C DID spec. But yeah, you

    I’m a pleb so I am not on the BlueSky, but the spec over on AT Proto dot com is p nfity.

    Frankly I would rather write something which implements the protocol and host it myself rather than sign up for something.

    In general though, Activity Pub and AT Protocol give me hope that the dear old decentralized web might be on its way back.

  3. You missed Discord, which I think has taken over the social media niche for some users.

  4. The federated social media services are definitely interesting, but their independence from one another creates a problem. If someone posts a URL on one server, and it ends up becoming popular and going from new server to new server, every one of those servers will fetch preview content from the original URL. That’s essentially a DDOS attack.

    The centralized sites have other problems, but not that one.

  5. Hi John. I definitely agree with you in principle, but I think I find the very proprietary and exclusinary as coed of BlieSjkybtonkeem me War if it, regardless of personal believes regarding Jack Dorsey. The sheer variety of options and the flexibility of the activitypub system gives me great hope. I’d love to see it flourish under the open-source ethics of design : do your best, lose the ego, and share/adopt techniques. That, I think, is what really give it that hopepunk feeling from Web 1.0.

  6. Ah, you did mention Discord-like servers. Not quite the same thing as the site itself, but close enough I guess.

  7. Discord is something I hear a lot from my younger associates (younger as in > 40 years younger). Not something I’m going to be messing on—which is a bit surprising to me personally, as I used to be someone who hopped on the New Thing as soon as it caught fire….

  8. One group where I was a lurker on Twitter has moved to Discord, and I find that that’s where I spend my “pleasant” social media time, and I’m an active participant. Twitter is mostly doom scrolling these days.

  9. Remember when we’d post things like “Can we please stop at whatever comes after Google+”. Good times.

  10. I think whatever comes next will also fall into the principle of “Eight months paradise, for September is eternal.”

    “Eternal September” is a term coined by Usenet pioneers for the time when AOL ran a newsgroups gateway. Because AOL grew with all those free trial disks in magazines, AOL users inundated newsgroups and brought with them churlish etiquette, trolling, spamming, etc. In the antediluvian period before AOL, Usenet was mostly a province of college students and tech hobbyists, and since the school year began in September, there was a small but manageable tide of college students who’d behave the same way as AOLers, but they can be gently admonished to learn the netiquette. AOL obliterated that.

    You know what? You’re going to see Eternal September recur in every communications platform. It’s happened in Facebook and Twitter. It may happen to TikTok now. Give BlueSky, Mastodon, Spoutible another eight months. It’ll happen there, too.

    Communication has a carrying capacity, and you cannot have open-ended communication and scale it because of the human element.

    In addition to Eternal September, there is also GIFT — the Greater Internet F—wad Theory. There are both Arminian and Calvinist interpretations of GIFT.

    The Arminian is the original by John Gabriel, who formulated that Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total F—wad.

    Warning: Language

    The Calvinistic interpretation is by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, who strips away anonymity and audience. Humans are totally depraved and their worst tendencies are predestined to manifest themselves on the internet.

  11. I keep hoping Spoutible will reach critical mass because it seems well ru. But not enough of the people I follow have moved over to make me start.

    Everyone seems to be waiting on the app. How about you John, do you think you’ll be active over there?

  12. Just as the average person in the street does not see themselves as failed ladies or gentlemen, so do the users of social media not see themselves as failing to have the ethics of a journalist.

    In fact, I once saw research showing that people will forward stuff they think is a lie. So I don’t see social media as rising above our common clay. I mean, it took years before our ancestors stopped saying, “It must be true or they wouldn’t have printed it.”

    When blogs first came out, and there was all that excitement, I was skeptical of “everyman’s town hall, wow!” because real town halls, even in a village, were just too big.

    Yes, there is good stuff but still, after I spend time, say, scrolling twitter, I think, “Darn, I could have been watching Star Trek.”

  13. When Google Reader went away I switched to Feedly for all things RSS and similar. Still using it, including for Whatever.

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