About two decades ago, Facebook exploded on campuses as a site for students to stay in touch. Then came Twitter and Instagram, where friends shared photos to keep up with one another.
Today, Instagram and Facebook feeds are full of ads and sponsored posts. TikTok and Snapchat are stuffed with videos from influencers promoting dish soaps and dating apps. And soon, Twitter posts that gain the most visibility will come mostly from subscribers who pay for the exposure.
Social media is becoming less social. Posts where people update friends and family about their lives have become harder to see as the biggest sites have become increasingly “corporatised”. Users of Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat now often view professionalised content from brands and influencers that pay for placement.
But as big social networks made connecting people with brands a priority over connecting them with others, some have started seeking community-oriented sites and apps devoted to specific hobbies and issues.
“Platforms as we knew them are over,” said Zizi Papacharissi, a communications professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, US. “They have outlived their utility.”
The shift helps explain why some social networking companies, which continue to have billions of users and pull in billions of dollars in revenue, are now exploring new avenues of business.
“It’s not about choosing one network to rule them all — that is crazy Silicon Valley logic,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, US. “The future is that you’re a member of dozens of different communities, because as human beings, that’s how we are.”
In 2019, Zuckerberg wrote that private messaging and small groups were the fastest-growing areas of online communication. Dorsey, who stepped down as Twitter’s chief in 2021, has pushed for so-called decentralised social networks that give people control over the content they see and the communities they engage with. He has recently been posting on Nostr, which is based on this principle.
The tricky part is finding the newer, small networks because they are obscure. But broader social networks, like Mastodon or Reddit, often act as a gateway to smaller communities. When signing up for Mastodon, for example, people can choose a server from an extensive list, including those related to gaming, food and activism.
Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s chief executive, said users were publishing over 1 billion posts a month across its communities and that there were no algorithms or ads altering people’s feeds.
One major benefit of small networks is that they create forums for specific communities, including people who are marginalised. Ahwaa, founded in 2011, is a social network for members of the LGBTQ community in countries around the Persian Gulf where being gay is deemed illegal. Others like Letterboxd, an app for film enthusiasts to share their opinions, are focussed on special interests.
Smaller communities can also relieve some social pressure of using social media, especially for younger people. In the past decade, stories have emerged — including in congressional hear-ings about the dangers of social media — about teens having eating disorders after trying to live up to “Instagram perfect” photos and through watching TikTok videos.
The idea that a new social media site might come along to be the one app for everyone appears unrealistic, experts say. When young people are done experimenting with a new network — such as BeReal, the photo-sharing app that was popular among teenagers last year but is now haemorrhaging millions of active users — they move on to the next one.
“They’re not going to be swayed by the first shiny platform that comes along,” Papacharissi said.
People’s online identities will become increasingly fragmented among multiple sites, she added. “What we’re interested in is smaller groups of people who are communicating with each other about specific things,” Papacharissi said.