Instagram makes us feel inadequate, the Twitter news cycle is exhausting and Facebook consists of engagement photos from your primary school classmates, or 400-word rants by your mum’s friends about their window cleaners. It’s little wonder that many millennials are becoming disillusioned with mainstream social media sites.
Research by the Royal Society for Public Health published in July found that 59 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds would consider taking a break from social media for at least a month, while last year Pew Research estimated that in the previous 12 months, 42 percent of adults had stayed off Facebook for several weeks or more, and 26 percent had deleted the Facebook app from their phone. And with burner phones making a surprise comeback in 2019, it seems that others have decided to ditch smartphones altogether.
While the ‘digital detox’ is becoming increasingly popular, it’s not the only way in which some millennials are reassessing their relationship with social media. Instead of deleting Instagram or Twitter accounts, a growing number are instead connecting with their networks via ‘wholesome’ alternatives like Goodreads, Strava and Nextdoor, all of which have seen rapid growth over the past year.
Lauren is a 25-year-old Londoner who has been using Goodreads for the past year or so. A platform that allows users to create profiles with the books they are reading and engage in discussions, Goodreads launched in January 2007 but has enjoyed its biggest growth over the past couple of years, from around 60 million users at the end of its first decade to 90 million at present. As a keen user of Twitter and Instagram, Lauren felt that the negatives of mainstream social media were starting to outweigh the positives.
“I think millennials have been getting a bit disillusioned with it for a while,” she explains (somewhat ironically) over Twitter. Lauren recently took a break from social media while on holiday after becoming “really overwhelmed by everything,” and found that she didn’t miss Instagram and Twitter nearly as much as she expected to. “It’s just people arguing, which is pointless because no one is actually interested in having their minds changed,” she says.
Unlike the mainstream apps, Lauren has found that Goodreads actually encourages her to spend less time on social media. “Basically, the only reason I go on Twitter or Instagram is to fill time, so I’ve been trying not to do that by reading on the train to work instead of scrolling endlessly.” Although she is aware of the potential a Goodreads profile offers “to show off instead of just reading books for enjoyment,” she hasn’t found herself becoming addicted to checking the app.
“I only really check Goodreads every now and then, usually to update what I’ve been reading or because I’ve seen a book I want to add to my ‘to read’ list, but it’s nice to scroll through and see what people are saying,” Lauren says. “And even if I did use it more or sought approval through it, it still seems less hollow than Twitter and Instagram because you actually have to read a whole book and form an opinion on it to participate, rather than just posting a meme.”
Connecting with people via common interests is also the goal of Strava, a subscription-based app that allows users to share exercise and training sessions with friends. With a million new members joining every month and 15 million activity uploads per week, Strava is growing faster than any other period in its ten-year history, and added a million new users in the UK alone last year.
Gareth Mills, the platform’s UK head, believes this is down to a fundamental shift in what we now look for in a social network. “I think the days of having endless social networks filled with everyone you’ve ever met but have no shared interests with are numbered and that the future is social networks reliant on vertical interests,” he explains over the phone.
Mills also links Strava's growing popularity with its lack of advertising. “As a subscription-based product, we aren’t beholden to advertisers, so we don’t value the amount of time that our users spend on in our app or the things they’re clicking on," he says. "Instead we’re measuring how physically active people are and how frequently they’re staying active, so one of the metrics we measure is the number of times people are uploading per month. For every one minute people spend on Strava, they spend 50 minutes going outside and doing something. It’s about putting your phone away, getting outside and doing something in real life.”
It’s easy to feel exhausted by the gaping chasm between our true selves and the versions we perform online (yes, I recently read Jia Tolentin's new book), so platforms that require users to take part in an offline activity in order to participate in the online conversation offer a refreshing change. And while there might again be potential pitfalls with an app like Strava, which encourages direct comparison between users’ activity levels, Mills is keen to point out that this is usually a positive thing. “We see that people have a sense of camaraderie when they’re working towards similar goals,” he says.
It’s this rare sense of community that seems to be what an increasing number of millennials find so attractive about alternative social media. Nowhere is this more evident than Nextdoor, a platform that connects you with others in your neighbourhood. Founded in California in 2008, the number of UK Nextdoor users has more than doubled in 2019, growing at a rate three times faster than last year across Europe.
And there are a surprising number of younger users on it, as 28-year-old artist and teacher Georgia tells me. Like most of us, London-based Georgia uses Instagram “as a form of escapism” and is aware that the feeling of enjoyment we all get from likes is “strangely empty.”
“Nextdoor is completely different,” she explains. “I have made really meaningful connections on here with people of different ages in the local community who I otherwise wouldn’t have met. I wanted someone to help me build a mezzanine in my studio, and I met a man on here who came and did it. He turned out to be a great person, and I also met a really wonderful person who helped me with a move. I still talk to them now.” With the precarity of renting and house shares often meaning that urban millennials don’t feel as if we have a stake in their local area, Georgia has found that Nextdoor has given her a sense of community that she may have struggled to find by other means.
As mainstream social media sites seem to lose sight of the importance of community, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that millennials are beginning to look for it elsewhere.