For a culture now so obsessed with image and video, it’s easy to forget that social media was built from blocks of text. You need only look back at films, music videos, or computer guides from the turn of the century to see how social media was once perceived: as the preserve of nerds and basement dwellers who spent hours a day on ugly message boards, or of teenagers obsessively documenting their lives on MySpace and then Facebook. Twitter’s launch in 2006 as a micro-blogging site felt like the natural progression of the text-based internet – the purest distillation of how people used social media at the time. Though it never quite reached the peaks of its predecessors, its success suggested many people wanted social media to be a space to share thoughts, to tell jokes, to argue. Mostly to talk.
It is perhaps fitting then that, as we witness the rise of TikTok and similar platforms, Twitter appears to be really, truly finished thanks to its new owner, the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. Musk has admitted that there has been a “massive” drop in revenue since his takeover (the company is losing $4 million a day and advertisers are fleeing the site) and reports have shown that in his first few days as Twitter’s owner the platform lost more than a million users. Some users have joined Twitter alternatives, such as Mastodon and Cohost.
While it’s easy (and fun) to blame Musk for Twitter’s demise, appetite for this kind of social media experience was already waning. Musk gave already conflicted users a good excuse to jump. Twitter is not alone in its sudden collapse: Facebook’s parent company, Meta, is about to lay off thousands of its workers for the first time in the company’s history. The company lost $80 billion of its market value following its quarterly report last month, in which one division of the company reported a $3.7 billion loss in just three months. Reports claim this was due to Mark Zuckerberg’s obsession with expanding the Metaverse, the company’s virtual reality world, and that he has all but forgotten about Meta’s other platforms, especially Facebook. Zuckerberg has said in a statement that, alongside the Metaverse, his focus will be on building the artificial intelligence that powers recommendations for Instagram Reels, the app’s video content.
There is a growing pile of evidence suggesting the platforms we once saw as the archetypal social media sites are becoming obsolete. Instead of chat rooms and text posts, there is the rise of front-facing cameras and visual content above all else. An online world of images, short clips, livestreaming and an obsession with the “personal brand” is replacing the internet that prioritised communication, ease of access and messages. We are at the end of the text-based social media era.
This change is in large part due to how social media now asks users to present themselves online. From the Noughties into the early 2010s social media platforms didn’t necessarily emphasise the personal brand, but communities. While the personal “profile” was always a part of the social media experience, you can see this difference in the language used online: Facebook and Myspace didn’t have followers, they had friends. The way these sites worked catered to building groups and creating events and relied on text-based interactions.
Now – in some part thanks to YouTube and Instagram, but particularly accelerated by TikTok – mainstream social media has become unconcerned with building relationships between people, and is instead principally focused on building what are essentially fandoms. People on these platforms are increasingly not described as “users”, but are encouraged to view themselves as “creators”. This has been a common industry term for the better part of the last decade to describe professional influencers, but now appears as a label visible to users on the TikTok app. Users are encouraged to take their content creation seriously and to view themselves through this individualist lens. Other platforms are following TikTok’s lead – for example, when someone likes a comment on their own Instagram post, a caption now pops up that reads “liked by creator”.
This linguistic difference is evidence of a much greater change in how we understand social media. When once we considered the internet to be those Nineties walls of text, now we think of a bombardment of video. Text has become secondary to the image. What then happens to those of us who still want a text-based social media experience? Creating a video on TikTok or Instagram is a much more time-consuming task than firing off a text post in a matter of seconds. There are still some mainstream platforms where text-based posts flourish: Reddit, Tumblr. The death knell of the text post hasn’t quite sounded yet. But social media is changing. Twitter and Facebook’s decline are probably just the beginning of the end of our text-based social media era – one that we may look back on as dated and quaint, limited to this ultimately brief moment in history.
[See also: How long does Facebook have left?]