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Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Infinite Deaths of Social Media

In 2012, when a species of Karner blue butterfly in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore park suddenly perished during a summer of intensifying climate catastrophe, Gregor W. Schuurman, who at the time was working as a conservation biologist, had an epiphany. His refusal to accept the planet’s changing patterns was beginning to feel misguided. It prompted Schuurman to join the National Park Service’s newly created adaptation team as an ecologist, where, among a host of other duties, he was tasked with finding out-of-the-box solutions—or, alternative futures, as I prefer to think of them—in the face of an unrelenting climate reality: that all things, at some point, come to an end.

A major objective of the adaptation team is to discover what possibilities are viable on the other side of extinction. Schuurman and his colleagues have been on my mind lately. One of the prevailing narratives to surface from the news of Elon Musk buying Twitter—in a culture-shaking deal worth $44 billion—was that the end, in some form, had arrived for the pioneering social media site. The blue bird was destined for the same fate as the Karner blue butterfly.

It is still too soon to say just how bad, or how much better, Twitter might get under Musk, but that hasn’t stopped users from all manner of speculation. The platform that reengineered the immediacy of communication and gave voice to generation-defining movements—one of the few places where niche online communities have proven necessary ports of refuge even as harassment flared—they believed, was nearing a fatal coda. 

Hyperbole is instinctual on Twitter. So it was not surprising to hear of an apocalypse foretold: that the eccentric and polarizing billionaire planned to transform the site into a troll’s paradise under the guise of free speech (one with better tools and unencumbered by moderators), creating a domino effect that would spark a mass exodus of the Twitter faithful. Prognosticators warned of a migration so impactful that the very site would lose what has made it an essential resource for untold communities of people.

But endings can also be an animating force. In fact, endings are a primary context in which the social web should be understood. Fundamentally, the social internet is a constellation of apps and websites where people openly and sometimes combatively consort, perform identities, and troll strangers. Within this online ecosystem, platforms are built, embraced, and abandoned or shut down with gross regularity; some 70 percent of startups don’t last longer than five years.

The digital exchange we are the benefactors of today was perfected from loss. And it continues to be so. Genius ideas are generated from the graveyard of what was. All modern platforms are created from, on top of, or in relation to another’s end. The brutality of that fact is also its beauty: Endings are an inevitable part of the social internet’s lifecycle. And in the wake of what has gone, of what has been lost or ended, new platforms are built from the parts of old ones. There is no Facebook without MySpace (and no MySpace without Friendster). No Spotify without Napster. No Instagram without Tumblr. The life essence of a platform, in part, is a product of what came before it.

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One of the many things inherent in the digital age—and especially on social media, where the tinkering and retooling of relationships is a constant—is the certainty of impermanence, the assurance of the ephemeral. Things are here and then, in a spectacular flash, they are not.

None of this should be as surprising as it is. The dominant discourse of the last decade, accelerated by a collective belief in technology as a necessary and toothsome cure-all, was centered around endings. And not just conventional ends, but sudden beheadings (Vine) and fast rises followed by even faster burnouts (Quibi, WeWork).

The discourse extends well beyond the theater of Silicon Valley. In pop culture, we regularly speak in the language of apocalypse. Some of the most engrossing television series of late have attempted to detail the beautiful and complicated nature of human connection through different end-of-the-world scenarios, as survivors confront global ruin (Station Eleven; Y: The Last Man). More and more, our everyday exchanges are decorated in the pageantry of finality: The way we speak about policing (defund!), climate change (end times!), and education (book banning!) suggests an emphasis on endings. This week, the leak of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade sparked a conversation about who has the right to say when, or if, a pregnancy should be terminated. Endings teach us where to place value.

Maybe all of that is why I am OK with letting go of Twitter, if and when the moment comes for that. (If I had to guess, we’re still several years away.) The expectation that our virtual harbors should last forever is a false one. We should not expect them to, nor should we want them to. For all its scale and greedy maneuvering to dominate the social sphere—to be the everything of one’s online existence—even Facebook has failed to capture the awe and magic of Twitter’s real-time exchange. It is a cultural force, a hundred times over. The wealth of insight embedded in its various off-shoot communities—Black Twitter, NBA Twitter, Relationship Twitter, Freak Twitter, etc.—is impossible to quantify because what they provide is indispensable in the here and now. But they cannot last forever as they are.

What Twitter is today is not necessarily the best or most useful version of what is possible for users moving forward. The more fascinating outcome of Musk’s acquisition, and a potential exodus of users, is how it might give rise to the next iteration of the social internet somewhere else (and no I don’t mean the metaverse, which is intended to be lived in as a domestic space). The inevitably of Twitter’s end should not be cause for despair—there is excitement in what awaits us on the other side, in what comes next. That, for me, has always been the addictive charm of the social internet: that we continually find new ways to interact, create, be. That no matter what, we never stagnate.

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