The Death of the Social Internet, and What’s Next
In the decade to come, access to information will become more fragmented than ever.
Hello, readers and friends! Before we dive into the topic of this week’s newsletter, wanted to share a quick update and programming note—plus a tease of what’s to come.
If you’re a follower of mine on social media, you’ve probably noticed I’ve been really busy and it’s affected the amount of content, so apologies for that and thanks to the people who’ve stuck with me. I’ve been on new medication, which has been messing with my energy, and right now I’m nursing a cold before some travel next week.
That said, you might’ve also seen that we’ve been fundraising at Overcome, the media company I run, and there is some really exciting news in the works for The Jacob Wolf Report, ‘Visionaries’ and all of our content. So here’s your announcement of an announcement — stay tuned!
If you’re like me this week, you’re probably being inundated with talk about Threads, the new ‘Twitter Killer’ brought to you by Mark Zuckerberg and the teams at Facebook and Instagram.
I signed up on the day it launched, and it’s understandably a mess. It lacks a bunch of features, but overall, I have hope that Threads will iterate rather quickly given the behemoth of a corporate entity behind it.
But rather than focus on Threads vs. Twitter vs. Bluesky vs. Hive vs. Mastodon, or any of the other new social media apps that have popped up in the past year — I want to talk about the social internet at large, and why I think it’s dying for many of the reasons that once made it successful. And not just because Elon Musk is Twitter’s new owner. No, the problems with the social internet are systemic, and not just limited to Twitter.
Some credit where it’s due, before I dive into it, too. This topic has been on my mind a lot since former Gawker editor-in-chief Alex Pareene appeared on my podcast two weeks ago (listen to that here).
So here’s my take:
The social internet as we’ve known it for the past 15 years is dying, and over the next decade, access to information will become more fragmented than ever. Social media websites will remain relevant, but not as a primary source of information as they have been. News organizations and journalists will see a massive correction, laying off even thousands more than they already are, as referral traffic nosedives. And in their place will emerge hard-to-access and discover, decentralized communities across various forms of media.
Since Facebook became massively popular in the late aughts, social media has dominated the flow of information.
I’m just old enough to remember a time before it — my grandmother was an early email adopter in the late ’90s and early aughts, and I distinctly remember email groups and lists that she was a part of. They were how she found out information that wasn’t widely circulated on national TV. This would later transform into newsletters backed by corporate entities like mainstream news outlets, but its origin is in community.
Facebook, and later Twitter and Reddit, changed that, though. Open up any of those three apps in the late aughts or early 2010s and you’d get your daily digest, aggregated from various websites, some mainstream generalist publications, and some more niche, topic- or hobby-focused. For a time, it seemed perfect. It took the power of Google’s search and did the hardest work for the end consumer: figuring out what to care about and engage with.
For the past 15 years, that’s been the standard for billions of people around the world. Social media websites dictate the flow of information, and ones like Reddit and Twitter, in particular, have become the “front page of the internet” for millions of people.
But two things are changing now that are affecting this consumer behavior.
Consumers are starting to migrate from finding their information through text-based social media channels and instead are finding it via shortform video, audio and other means. With this comes less brand awareness and trust in institutions and a more parasocial bond between individuals and audience, including newsmakers.
Trust in Facebook, Twitter and Reddit is declining, for different reasons on all three platforms. Twitter, with its new owner in Elon, is the most covered in the space, but the other two are experiencing the same effect, and the problems across all three are not new.
Let’s dive into the first one.
The “pivot to video” has become almost a meme in the news world. Whenever a news media executive is under fire by their investors or owners for poor performance, you’ll frequently hear that line. That means lay off a lot of the written editorial people and hire people focused on creating digital video, be it on YouTube, TikTok or Instagram. That’s no magic fix, though, and boring news content translated to a 60-second vertical video clip is not going to perform well.
No, the real reason digital video, and especially shortform, is doing so well right now is because of personality—something many print journalists do not have, or have been taught not to have by journalism schools and editors that focus hard on the facts.
But facts and personality don’t have to clash. Injecting your personality into your content doesn’t necessarily mean editorializing. It means removing the translucent wall that exists between newsmaker and audience. To win at being a content creator in 2023 means being able to develop parasocial relationships with your audience. To feel like they know you. Podcasts and livestreaming are the oldest form of doing this, and in some ways, shortform video is borrowing from them.
This is antithetical to news in so many ways, but if you see who are becoming newsmakers on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, you’ll realize it’s mostly not people with professional media experience. Personality is first. News aptitude is second.
Many of the media peers I talk with cringe when you raise this. It’s threatening their jobs, and I’ve met fewer groups as stubborn as journalists when it comes to adapting to change. Plus, journalism isn’t particularly a job where you get to be philosophical about what you do — other than the occasional reflection of your beat and maybe the impact of the work. It’s a churn game.
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That said, I am fearful what will happen to the media in the next few years. Layoffs in the media industry are nothing new. I’m just afraid that when executives start to feel the headwinds and start doing cost-benefit analysis of many journalists who do incredibly valuable work for society, but don’t provide enough benefit monetarily to recoup their cost, their time in media will come to an end. I’m lucky, on a personal level, that I’ve focused on such an ambitious, big-picture approach in my career, despite criticism from peers and former bosses.
I am hopeful that younger journalists will thrive and adapt and ride the wave of the content consumption shift. And that maybe some more experienced veterans will get with the program, too.
Now onto the platforms.
Twitter has been under fire for almost a year now since Elon Musk decided to acquire the site. I’m not a never-Elon person as many of my media peers are—but my opinion on him has changed over the past year, from what I thought was a visionary to what I realize now is a man with a lot of money and a lot of sycophants who don’t keep him in check.
For context, Twitter has never been a good business. Even at its height of engagement, which is hard to pinpoint but was probably sometime around the 2016 election, Twitter bled money. It had no way to monetize. Its advertising business was subpar compared to Facebook’s, the dominant player in social media. Its reach never came close to that of Facebook, which is globally relevant versus Twitter’s very Western-aggregated audience.
That said, Twitter served a purpose that I—and so many others—have found incredibly addictive. Twitter at its best was a liveblog of the world’s events. If anything news- or note-worthy happened anywhere across the globe, Twitter was the first app I’d open. The same consumer behavior existed for what I’d guess is hundreds of millions of others.
What’s changed with Elon, albeit I’d guess that it’d change regardless, is that Twitter is now noise. A lot of noise.
Twitter isn’t the place now where you find relevant information. It’s a place full of hate and toxicity, bots and spammers and shitposters who game the algorithm and surface into the “For You” tab. It’s almost suffocating to try and find information on Twitter now.
Elon has prioritized revenue—can’t blame him as a businessperson, frankly—over altruism. Yet he has not achieved significant revenue scale, either. Twitter is a mess.
Reddit’s going through a similar metamorphosis right now, too. With a recent profit-motivated push to monetize its API, Reddit has effectively pissed off its powerusers. Moderators have taken down some of the most-read subreddits, and for a while, the Reddit home page was just a wall of John Oliver memes. (I wish I was joking…)
It shares the same problem as Twitter: Both provided vital access to information, but neither figured out how to monetize that information. Now, one is owned by a billionaire who’s bleeding cash and is overleveraged with debt, and the other is under the gun of shareholders eager to exit via IPO. Two of the internet’s most important websites are being taken out to pasture.
Facebook has been through this experience, too, albeit its scale saved it from many long-term effects. In mid-2015, the site altered its newsfeed significantly—making it less about news and more about interaction, surfacing more posts from friends and pages and fewer news article referral links. This is classic social media. Keep people on the platform as long as possible. Vie for their attention.
The result, though? Dozens upon dozens of blogs and well-funded news sites died, as the referral traffic they got from Facebook was swept out from under them. Facebook has remained relevant, but it is not a vital hub for information anymore.
So what does the internet look like in the world I envision? Well, it’s something like this:
Newsletters are and will become paramount to reliably obtaining information. Discord servers, WhatsApp chats and other private access groups will become where crowdsourced communities and niche topic news is shared. There won’t be a single app you can open on your phone and figure out what’s going on in the world. That time is over.
TikTok will remain extremely relevant and replace Twitter and Reddit, in particular, as the place to obtain information. Other short-form platforms like YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels will continue to grow.
In some ways, this is a good thing. Control over what you consume will never be easy. What’s scary, though, and worries me, is being able to discover what you should be interested in.
Now your interests are determined partly by happenstance: a retweet, community upvotes or via an algorithm. But if interests are gated behind a Discord or a WhatsApp chat, how do you get into those communities in the first place? Where is the primary source of discovery?
That’s what’s scary to me.
That’s it for this edition of The Jacob Wolf Report. Thank you for reading. This post is public so feel free to share it.