A golden age of connectivity is ending. “I deleted my Facebook years ago, spend at least three to six months off Twitter every year, and Bluesky invites are just sitting in my inbox,” a friend tells me when I ask how her relationship to social media has changed in recent times. “I basically only use [Instagram] Stories and almost never post on the grid. I do it once a week so I can get away with saying ‘Free Palestine’ without the algorithm punishing me. I refuse to get any more accounts. I’m over it.”
This is how it goes now, in what is being christened the twilight of an era of social media that redefined community building and digital correspondence. For many first-gen social media users—millennials between the ages of 27 and 42—there is a developing sentiment that the party is over.
Twitter is bad (sorry, I will never refer to it as X). Instagram is overrun with ads and influencers hawking face creams and fitness tips. TikTok, what originally felt like a glossier alternative to YouTube, increasingly resembles an outlet mall full of “dupes,” prizing hype over lasting influence.
That’s one attribute Twitter never lacked. I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time on the platform over the last decade. It was the avenue of the Black Lives Matter movement, a megaphone for everyday users, and, through a wave of history-setting and history-unsettling US elections, transformed culture into a 24/7 participatory event. There is no #MeToo without Twitter, nor the beginnings of racial reckoning in Hollywood. Twitter refashioned the look of communication through a vernacular of memes and GIFs, where resident collectives like Black Twitter and NBA Twitter excelled as virtuosos of the form.
It has now been a year since Elon Musk assumed control of Twitter, and in what felt like record time, he has taken a sledgehammer to everything that gave the platform its unique draw (issues of safety and inclusion were a problem under former CEO Jack Dorsey but have significantly worsened). There is a void in the social media universe that, until now, Twitter singularly occupied.
In its heyday, from 2008 to 2015, before digital currencies like retweets and views reoriented how users interacted with one another, no other platform offered what Twitter did, the way it did: up-to-the-second real-time conversation and analysis. It was a blank slate, and because it was a blank slate, it was a canvas to document what was happening to us and around us. It was revolutionary, and soon what we remember of it will be gone.
If the early promise of social media was to bring society closer to a virtual ideal, the most recent shift in how platforms are used has lost the plot. Along with Twitter, the erosion of the user experience on Facebook and Instagram—with tiered subscriptions, a proliferation of hate speech and misinformation, privacy being sold as a luxury, and the threat of generative AI—marks a sharp turning point in the value of the social web. It’s “too much echo chamber,” my friend says of what the social internet has evolved into. “It’s too much viewing people you know in real life as marketing categories.” Everything about the current online user experience, she says, is “too mind-melting.”
Social media today is less driven by actual social connection. It is powered by the “appearance of social connection,” says Marlon Twyman II, a quantitative social scientist at USC Annenberg who specializes in social network analysis. “Human relationships have suffered and their complexity has diminished. Because many of our interactions are now occurring in platforms designed to promote transactional interactions that provide feedback in the form of attention metrics, many people do not have much experience or practice interacting with people in settings where there are collective or communal goals for a larger group.” This has also led to people being more image-conscious and identity-focused in real-world interactions, too, Twyman adds.