It’s hard to believe there was a time, in those early, heady days of social media, that I wanted more of it. New services would pop up on what seemed like a weekly basis and I — the young naif — would sign up for every one of them. Each social service represented some part of my identity — my music tastes, coffee shop check-ins, and Twitter ruminations.
I even welcomed the arrival of Friendfeed: a meta-service that collected all my blog posts, tweets, status updates from multiple platforms into one feed. Anything I’d ever said or shared about myself online was there, an ongoing archive of my self collected in real-time. It was a neat little summation of who I was.
Not that everyone loved the sharing, of course. Lots of people felt it indulged our worst tendencies. But ultimately, the growing popularity of these services seemed to indicate that our social norms were changing. Facebook itself acquired the Friendfeed aggregator in 2009. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which are searchable and often connected to our IRL job-and-children-having selves, slowly became repositories of years of indiscretions, which were supposed to seem smaller and less significant once you could see everyone else’s. Those incriminating pics of you at a kegger with a joint in your hand would no longer disqualify you from a job, at least in theory.
But that isn’t what’s happened. As social media became entrenched as part of mainstream life, they also became subject to the downsides of any normal thing: too much noise, too much exposure, and increased risks of abuse or harassment. Having our histories be public just made it worse. Old opinions or bad tweets that hadn’t aged well were ripe to be taken out of context, and trolls with malicious intent have often just done just that, weaponizing people’s own history against them. The further back one’s online life stretches, the greater the risk.
Even if a tweet didn’t ruin your life, you still have an archive of embarrassment that Facebook has diligently saved for you: ill-advised jokes, too-earnest expressions of emotion, and photos in which we simply look terrible. While movements like #deletefacebook were ostensibly about protecting your data from corporations, perhaps they also reflected a desire for another kind of privacy: a way to just erase all that unflattering history.
So we developed ad-hoc fixes: anonymous Twitter accounts, teen “Finstagrams,” group texts, private Slacks, deactivating Facebook when you’re not online. (They’re not perfect. It only took a few hours Gizmodo to find James Comey’s supposedly secret Twitter account.) The decline in oversharing wasn’t just about the difficulty of maintaining a pristine persona; it was also that the space for oversharing started to feel inappropriate, and sometimes even unsafe.
In response, tech companies have leaned hard on the “story.” The disappearing images and videos were first popularized by Snapchat, but are showing up everywhere else, too. The beauty of stories is that they are messier and rougher than regular posts, focused on fun and immediacy instead of how they’ll look in hindsight. And why shouldn’t they be? A few hours later, they’ll just delete. Instagram claims 300 million daily users of the feature.
What happens next is probably not the overthrow of Facebook or Twitter— especially now that those platforms are making a lot of noise about how they want to change. The need for an online presence, even if it’s just LinkedIn, is a big historical shift, not just a fad. But instead of a handful of big, public platforms, I wonder if we can expect a proliferation of smaller, more private platforms to find their place. Not only are they safer and friendlier, but they also foster a loyalty and intimacy that the big networks simply can’t.
These smaller, temporary spaces produce a similar effect to traditional social media — a space to vent and laugh and care — but without the downsides of a public forum. Instead of sharing a photo of a night out to everyone you know, you share it instead to the people who might actually care most. We still want to connect through the embarrassing minutiae of our lives — we just want the peace of knowing that, the next day, we won’t be beholden to them.
Navneet Alang is a technology and cultural journalist based in Toronto. He is a contributing writer for Track Changes, as well as the technology columnist at The Week. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, New Republic, Eater, BuzzFeed, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang.