Photos by SeventyFour and South_agency via Getty Images
For more end of year essays and analysis on VICE, check out 2022 in Review.I came across a tweet the other day that said something like, “Posting on the grid seems kind of cringe now.” They were speaking about Instagram – an app whose whole USP used to be “posting on the grid.” And I realised they were right. Posting on the grid does seem kind of cringe now, for some reason. Obviously none of this matters if you're not a self-conscious teenager (to be cringe is to be free, etc). But the conversation itself speaks to a wider shift that's happening. Which is: People don't know how to use social media anymore. Because social media is flopping.
The idea that Instagram is dead has been marinating for quite some time now. Young people certainly don't post like they used to, and an overtly “aesthetically pleasing” grid is something that belongs in the mid 2010s, back when people used to upload food pics and sunsets. This year also saw a mass exodus of Twitter after Elon Musk's messy takeover of the platform. There was that week in which people panicked and posted their Mastodon usernames and hastily launched new Substacks. I've even seen returns to the OG writing platform Tumblr, who has welcomed the internet girlies back with open arms. It seems like those used to being chronically online are struggling to know where to go next. Your 16-year-old family member and media-savvy boss will tell you that people only use TikTok now anyway. But for people who don't like posting peppy, talk-to-the-camera clips about their “day out in North London” or how to make a cheesy nacho chicken pizza hybrid, TikTok is never going to be comfortable or appealing. Meanwhile, BeReal might be fun for seeing your mates’ work laptop screens and post-depression nap selfies, but it has its limits. Conversations don't get fostered on BeReal. You don't scroll BeReal to keep up with current events. Going “online” now just involves flicking through various apps until you realise that there's nothing of note on any of them. So, what gives?
“People are definitely gravitating towards ways to spend time online that diverge from the social media that dominated the 2010s,” says Biz Sherbert, culture editor at the Digital Fairy, a creative agency and youth and internet culture specialists. She thinks that this doesn't mean people are spending more time offline, per se, but that they're spending more time on platforms more niche to their interests: Twitch, Discord, VR, whatever.She explains: “Often, these moves mirror how people spent their time online before the homogenisation of the internet by Big Social: 2000s chat rooms are now Discord servers, and Blogspots and Tumblrs have become today’s Substack blogs.”Dr Zoetanya Sujon, a senior lecturer in Communications and Media and author of The Social Media Age, doesn't think the Big Social platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook etc) are dead quite yet, “although we are seeing a lot of movement in the current landscape”. Instead, she notes, more established platforms tend to be used for different things as they evolve. “What you see when you look closely is that people still use Facebook regularly – but now for more boring things: scheduling, local events planning, photos, birthdays, etc. In other words, they like to ‘party’ on other platforms – Facebook in 2012/13, Snapchat/Instagram in 2018 – but rely quite heavily on established platforms for everyday life.”
Essentially, while the major platforms might be losing their “cool”, so to speak, this doesn't necessarily mean they're losing their longevity. You might think Facebook's dead because people under the age of 25 would think it frankly bizarre to post a photo album of their night out (unless it was in a meta, ironic kind of way??), but that doesn't negate the fact that there are still people on there. You need only glance towards the US 2016 general election to see what happens when we trivialise the power and influence of those hidden communities. Dr Mark Wong, a University of Glasgow lecturer in public policy and research methods, has done extensive research on social media and digital interactions. He says that the ethical ramifications of certain platforms has had a massive effect on how we use them in 2022. We’re less likely to broadcast our entire life on a Meta-owned platform, for example.He explains: “With the recent shift in people's trust in social media, and who is at the top of the chain of command, these platforms can no longer hide behind the illusion that social media is neutral or objective.” In other words: We’ve seen exactly what can happen when we place too much trust in untrustworthy sources.Plenty of people have theorised whether the future might be more offline. Although that's probably unlikely to happen. Sherbert thinks our online lives will simply look different. “The future of social media is richer and more intimate – mirroring the days of early influence, when those who cultivated a following were individuals first and influencers second, i.e. fashion editors becoming the first fashion influencers on Instagram,” she says.I, for one, am looking forward to it. But I would also quite like a place to post my little pictures, as well. Flickr?@daisythejones