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The Fragmented World of Social Media After Twitter

Are you on Bluesky? Let’s be honest: Probably not. The Twitter clone is still in beta and has been notoriously stingy with its invite codes. Its small size means that every time an influx of newbies arrives, the existing user base freaks out, filling the algorithmically curated “Discover” tab with incredibly overwrought complaints. A much-discussed recent post lamented that “Bluesky elders”–and here I should note that this is a service that launched a mobile version only in February–were suffering a degraded experience because of all the blow-ins. The phrase has become an instant meme.

You need to know only two things about Bluesky. The first is that its users are trying to make the word skeeting happen, although it’s an even worse alternative to tweeting than Mastodon’s tooting. The second is that it operates at a high emotional pitch at all times. Whereas scrolling Twitter’s “For You” tab is now like bobbing for apples in a bowl full of amateur race scientists and Roman-statue avatars lamenting that we no longer build cathedrals, the Bluesky equivalent features discussions of whether sending death threats to the site’s developers is acceptable if they really, really deserve it.

As far as I can tell, Bluesky is siphoning off both Twitter’s most emotionally dysregulated users and its most committed shitposters. I dare not post there–my account was briefly the most blocked on the app, according to a tracking service–but it’s nice to see that a small, tight-knit, and politically distinctive community has formed, albeit around shared interests that include hating me. Although it is a mere fraction of the size of the big social networks, Bluesky appears to have hit the critical mass needed to sustain itself, suggesting that Elon Musk’s actions at Twitter have irreparably fractured the service. We are now living in the post-Twitter era, literally and metaphorically. After Musk’s rebrand, X marks the spot where a large number of people no longer want to be.

Until recently, I doubted that even an owner as slapdash and capricious as Musk could bring down Twitter. The narcissists and addicts who linger there would put a barnacle to shame. The site has always been much smaller than Facebook, and it mattered only because politicians, journalists, and those who currently pass for public intellectuals were using it. Whether you read The New York Times or watched Fox News, you would encounter content that began its life on Twitter. When Twitter kicked Donald Trump off, it severely dented his ability to derail the news agenda, because journalists simply weren’t prepared to join Truth Social, the right-wing platform that the former president himself controls.

Now, though, I can see the first glimmers of a post-Twitter world. The weirdos, early adopters, shitposters, furries, and scolds are trying out Bluesky, where they can complain about “Elmo” and his tenure in charge of “the bird site.” Actual young people are on TikTok. True Boomers never made it to Twitter and are still happily posting on Facebook about UFOs and Bunco nights. A handful of disgruntled tweeters tried Post and Mastodon, but the first is a graveyard, and the second is an obstacle course for non-techie users. The normies and the brands went to Instagram’s new Threads app, and then many of the normies promptly left because Threads was too boring without enough weirdos, furries, or scolds to add seasoning to the mix. (Corporations might love placing their ads next to unobjectionable inspirational content, but the cumulative effect is to make Threads like watching a television channel entirely composed of infomercials.) Grindfluencers–the type of people who listen to 15-minute summaries of Freakonomics and The Art of War–have always been happiest on LinkedIn, posting about their podcast drops and congratulating you on your “work anniversary,” which is not and never will be a real thing. Instagram is still full of hot people who are feeling #blessed and keen to demonstrate this humility by posing in a bikini by an infinity pool. (If these posters have a hot sister, she can wear a bikini too, and then they can observe that #familyiseverything.) Twitter is now the social network of choice for people who know what a Sonnenrad is and, moreover, believe it has been unfairly maligned.

And some people will have looked at all of the options above and decided, at last, to touch grass.

Many controversies in the early era of social media grew out of the assumption that users had a singular, coherent identity across platforms. The researchers danah boyd and Alice Marwick described the resulting discord as “context collapse”: Users invited criticism by speaking offhandedly, as if in a private room, before potentially limitless audiences on Twitter or Facebook. Too often, a joke that would have slayed between two close friends was held up for wider disapproval in a BuzzFeed listicle or a TV-news chyron. Now we have become better at sorting ourselves into different modes in different spaces, to the extent that I have seen people lament that they know who they are on Instagram and they know who they are on Twitter, but I don’t know who I am on Threads.

Given this trend, the surprise isn’t that Twitter has now splintered, but that it lasted so long. For many years, it was a coliseum where both the gladiators and the lions had volunteered to be. Twitter allowed the right to troll the libs, and the libs to mount cancellation campaigns against the slightly less lib.

Was that healthy? For a long time, I worried about the proliferation of what the Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser called “filter bubbles,” which he defined as “your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online.” Perhaps polarization was driven by our imprisonment in echo chambers, I thought, and we were succumbing to pluralistic ignorance–a lack of awareness of the majority view. Now I wonder if the past decade of social media drove us all too far in the other direction, toward spending too much time with people unlike ourselves, herded together in ways that exaggerated our differences.

In 2018, the rationalist blogger who goes by Scott Alexander published a short story called “Sort by Controversial.” In it, a tech-start-up employee invents a program that can spit out “scissor statements”–assertions that instantly divide groups down the middle. The world avoids falling into perpetual low-grade warfare only because she accidentally creates a scissor statement that tears apart the company before its work is finished. The story captured the sense of social media as a rolling referendum on every subject under the sun. Were you a plane-seat recliner? Must you feed a visiting child dinner if they stayed late at your house? Was the dress blue or white? In political debates, that meant being force-fed the most head-banging obsessions of your political opponents. Take the Twitter account Libs of TikTok, which exists purely to harvest ultraprogressive views from one social network and serve them up to another social network as rage bait. Its popularity makes me think that filter bubbles, at least in a mild form, might not be such a bad idea.

In order to thrive, communities need boundaries and norms–and even, God help us, elders. That’s why I enjoy sticking my nose into Bluesky and taking a deep huff every so often. It’s a walled garden for people with a mutual interest in anime genitalia and cruel jokes about Mitch McConnell. They’re happy there. You probably wouldn’t be. And that’s okay.

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This article was originally published on The Atlantic. double-think is a platform committed to broadening access to high-quality journalism, and we encourage you to engage with the original piece on the The Atlantic website. Our goal is to spotlight top-tier news and features from global leaders in reporting. We do not claim any ownership or authorship of the original work. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider supporting The Atlantic directly by subscribing or visiting their website. Thank you for reading!

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