The Post-Platform Internet
We don't know where to go online now.
Welcome to my personal newsletter. I’m publishing weekly essays on digital technology and culture, in the run-up to my January 2024 book FILTERWORLD: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. Subscribe or read the archive here.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling adrift on the internet right now. There’s no place to call home, no central gathering point where the people I want to talk to congregate. The platforms that do exist feel worse and worse. Twitter, my longest online home base, is visibly decaying under Elon Musk. Content moderation is nonexistent. The feed that’s supposed to be a chronological list of people you follow is increasingly polluted with irrelevant ads and algorithmic promotions, like a stream covered in an oil slick. The NYT columnist Farhad Manjoo described it as “your favorite neighborhood bar” that Musk bought and ruined.
Nostalgia for digital platforms is pretty pointless: We have so little control over them that when we lose them we can’t be too upset. And yet I still feel slightly betrayed and destabilized by the changing internet order. That’s probably because I benefitted from it over the past decade. In a good thread, Ryan Broderick wrote about how Twitter used to be vital to creative industries. It provided a direct route from a writer’s brain to anyone who wanted to follow them. Its openness and directness made it possible to develop new forms of culture: journalism projects, weird memes, entire genres of humor. I found an audience and support there for my offbeat ideas about cultural criticism.
Now, as Twitter tries to defend its turf, it just kind of sucks. It doesn’t feel open or free-flowing. As the feed becomes more algorithmic, it’s harder to know who will actually see a tweet. For a few days Musk even banned links to Substack, the platform I’m using right now. The first major set of social networks — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — have all decayed. As I observed in my latest New Yorker column, they are less actually social than ever. The tech companies would rather we looked at ads than talk to our friends. That’s why we’re all in search of something else, an Internet that comes after these platforms, without their stifling homogeneity and inescapable commodification of attention.
We don’t know what this “post-platform internet” looks like yet. Part of the current feeling of rootlessness is that there aren’t any great alternatives, a fact that I find surprising given the availability of hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital. Are startups not trying hard enough? Some social-media replacements like Mastodon, Urbit, and BlueSky (founded by Twitter’s own Jack Dorsey) offer varying degrees of open-source decentralization; their software is customizable by users. Others offer a tighter topical focus, like Post.news, designed for journalists, and Substack Notes — which feels like one of the best interfaces to me, but is confined to people who read and write newsletters.
There’s no right answer here, but without compelling content and energy — the vibe of a fun local bar — no nascent platform is going to thrive. There has to be a motivation to post, whether that’s gaining an audience or reaching your friends. Some of my friends have turned to Reddit forums, an old-school option that now feels prescient. Group texts are always great. Discord has momentum, but you have to seek out and build relationships in the right server, and its aesthetic atmosphere still targets the gamer audience, alienating normies.
“Post-platform internet” is a nice phrase, but platforms as a technology aren’t going to go away (any more than “websites” are). We’re just going to have more of them, offering more and more varied ways to build your life online. These new options might lack the simultaneously exciting and vicious public centrality of Twitter or TikTok, where it’s possible to instantly reach millions of strangers who care nothing about you and are equally likely to insult or applaud you. The new platforms will likely be smaller in scale, and feel more boring at first. But they will ultimately be more sustainable, both for our mental health and the health of culture overall.
The most important thing to keep in mind as we decide which new platforms to invest our time and energy into is that we should be seeking out control and stability in these spaces. We should be able to influence how they function and how we are treated as users. Otherwise we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of the last decade and end up adrift once more.
— Discord Documents Leak: I wrote a New Yorker column about how the technical structure of Discord and the way it encourages private socializing online contributed to the recent leak of secret documents about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
— AI Pop Culture Is Already Here: I wrote another New Yorker column about AI-generated memes like the image of the Pope wearing a fancy puffer coat and a YouTube video remixing Harry Potter in the style of Balenciaga. (This was a fun one.)