The Infinite Deaths of Social Media


In 2012, when a species of Karner blue butterfly in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore park suddenly perished during a summer of intensifying climate catastrophe, Gregor W. Schuurman, who at the time was working as a conservation biologist, had an epiphany. His refusal to accept the planet’s changing patterns was beginning to feel misguided. It prompted Schuurman to join the National Park Service’s newly created adaptation team as an ecologist, where, among a host of other duties, he was tasked with finding out-of-the-box solutions — or, alternative futures, as I prefer to think of them — in the face of an unrelenting climate reality: that all things, at some point, come to an end.

A major objective of the adaptation team is to discover what possibilities are viable on the other side of extinction. Schuurman and his colleagues have been on my mind lately. One of the prevailing narratives to the surface from the news of Elon Musk buying Twitter — in a culture-shaking deal worth $ 44 billion — was that the end, in some form, had arrived for the pioneering social media site. The blue bird was destined for the same fate as the Karner blue butterfly.

It is still too soon to say just how bad, or how much better, Twitter might get under Musk, but that hasn’t stopped users from all manner of speculation. The platform that reengineered the rapidacy of communication and gave voice to generation-defining movements — one of the few places where niche online communities have proven necessary ports of refuge even as harassment flared — would soon meet its end.

Was the acquisition the final sign of terminal decay? Musk will surely implement changes once in charge — but to what degree? Is an alternative future possible?

Hyperbole is instinctual on Twitter. So it was not surprising to hear of an apocalypseuing: that the eccentric and polarizing billionaire planned to transform the site into a troll’s paradise under the guise of free speech (one with better tools and unencumbered by moderators), creating a domino effect that would spark a mass exodus of the faithful Twitter. Prognosticators warned of a migration so impactful that the very site would lose what has made it an essential resource for untold communities of people.

But endings can also be an animating force. In fact, endings are a primary context in which the social web should be understood. Fundamentally, the social internet is a constellation of apps and websites where people openly and sometimes combatively consort, perform identities, and troll strangers. Within this online ecosystem, platforms are built, embraced, and abandoned or shut down with gross regularity; Some 70 percent of startups don’t last longer than five years.

The digital exchange we are the benefactors of today was perfected from loss. And it continues to be so. Genius ideas are generated from the graveyard of what was. All modern platforms are created from, on top of, or in relation to another’s end. The brutality of that fact is also its beauty: Endings are an inevitable part of the social internet’s lifecycle. And in the wake of what has gone, of what has been lost or ended, new platforms are built from the parts of old ones. There is no Facebook without MySpace (and no MySpace without Friendster). No Spotify without Napster. No Instagram without Tumblr. The life essence of a platform, in part, is a product of what came before it.


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