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Laid Off: What's the future of social media?
When Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter finally became officially, he immediately fired the CEO and other top executives. That much is perfectly normal when a new owner takes over. But on Friday, half of Twitter’s workforce opened their personal inboxes to learn their own fates. They, too, had been laid off.
While restructuring is also a normal part of a new regime’s first acts, this workforce reduction is exceptional. I won’t document the hastiness, lack of strategy, or lack of humanity in this move here (if you want to know more, click the links). Today, I want to explore how the specter of layoffs seems to extend beyond the employees of Twitter, INC.
And really, I want to investigate the seemingly ubiquitous sense that all social media use today is futile.
“What are we even doing here?” many people seem to wonder.
I've noticed a looming ambient anxiety among the small business owners and freelancers I talk to or follow. While at one time it seemed that platforms like Twitter and Facebook would be permanent fixtures on the internet, today it's possible to imagine their position eroding into irrelevance.
Vox proclaims Instagram fundamentally broken. Millennials and Gen Z have left Facebook en masse. Some people are trying to make a go of it on LinkedIn—the platform of last resort, it seems. But my own feed is starting to look more like what I dislike most about other platforms.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, it’s starting to feel like the last day of summer camp, as Michael Hobbes deftly noted. People are tweeting out other places to follow them; or, they’re starting TinyLetters or Substacks; or they’re trying to figure out Mastodon.
It seems similar to the situation inside Twitter, as reported by Platformer:
"In Slack, employees began to say goodbye. They adopted two emoji: 💙, to represent Twitter, and , to represent a final salute to their peers. In a screen recording of Slack that I viewed, dozens upon dozens of employees saluted one another while offering words of comfort."
Waiting for the ax to drop must be its own special kind of psychological pain.
One's mind ruminating on "Am I in or am I out?" while Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D scenarios run on repeat.
I've never experienced a lay-off. But I imagine that it produces the sensation that your tether to the rest of the world has been broken. You’re adrift, aimless, and profoundly worried. Having a job—even one that completely sucks—is its own kind of safety. It’s a connection to people and money in the bank. It is at least a small dose of predictability in an otherwise unpredictable world.
In addition to the tweeps announcing their new newsletters or platforms of choice, there is another vocal set of Twitter users: those who use Twitter as a connection to independent work opportunities. Writer Meg Conley tweeted:
"Please, no more staff writers giving me 'it's amazing to leave twitter, actually. so good for your mental health and productivity!' takes. thankssomuch."
Meg is putting a sharp voice to the dull anxiety I've heard from small business owners and freelancers about social media for years.
What started as small indicators that things were "working" the way they once had, grew into bigger questions of how much time spent on social media was "worth it." And then, it morphed into mostly silent anxieties about whether social media has a future at all as a business-building tool.
I admit feeling this way myself—despite my digital privilege as an internet grandma and all. I feel trepidation at the idea of going it alone on the web. Social media largely doesn’t “work” for me anymore in terms of growing my audience or engaging with readers and listeners. That is to say: I simply don’t get a return that’s worth the time I spend creating content for various platforms. I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who don’t have the massive head start I had.
It’s no wonder that a mass exodus from Twitter (or Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn) inspires feelings akin to being laid off.
Not only have these platforms been a lifeline to new relationships, but they’ve also given us work. As in, we’ve been working for these platforms this whole time. The possibility of their uselessness produces mental friction—precarious, untethered, aimless concern.
We won’t get three months of severance pay or unemployment insurance. We won’t have our key cards taken away or our Slack access revoked. But the futility of our labor will be harder and harder to ignore. This is not to downplay the situation of newly laid-off former Twitter employees. It is merely to say that many of us are part of a larger system of misfortune.
Small business owners and indie workers make noise about choosing to start a business or pursue independent work. Despite this "choice" being marketed as the ticket to "freedom" and "wealth," it is predicated on being squeezed out (or feeling like you’re going to be squeezed out) of traditional employment.
"The vast majority of coaches I observed and interviewed were a lot like their clients. They, too, were recent victims of job market dislocation and are simply trying to parlay their own downward mobility into a new professional opportunity as a freelance expert selling career advice."
— Patrick Sheehan, "The new economy as multi-level marketing scheme"
I spent the first seven years of my working life feeling that despite a good education, a variety of skills, and a strong work ethic, there wasn’t a hole big enough for me to squeeze myself into the kind of job I was qualified for.
Social media, generally, and Twitter specifically, gave me a job.
Share ideas, make friends, help others, repeat. By performing that job, I was able to set up more independent business systems. But I truly don’t know how I would have done it as quickly as I did without social platforms.
My story isn’t unusual. Meg’s story isn’t unusual. And there are plenty of other perfectly normal stories of people squeezed out of an increasingly bifurcated workforce who feel at a (job) loss as the usability of all of these platforms seems to be in free fall.
But here’s what I’ve learned about the web in the last 25 years:
The internet provides.
Not the internet that venture capitalists and brogrammers build—the internet that is us.
I certainly won’t say that social media is dead or even dying.
Though, I like Charlie Warzel’s characterization of it as “geriatric.”
"I’ve been trying to talk myself into the social-media death-spiral idea, but it feels like the wrong framework to describe what is essentially just an evolution of the way people use the internet. To suggest that momentary stalls or plateaus, or even declines in platforms, spell certain death is, to some degree, to buy into Silicon Valley and Wall Street’s notion that anything other than perpetual hockey-stick growth is a death knell (and I find that outlook generally toxic and grating)."
— Charlie Warzel, "Welcome to Geriatric Social Media"
Will the future of the internet be TikTok? Will it be Mastodon? Maybe Substack, or a return of MySpace, or even Blogspot? I don't know.
But in my experience, when weird shit starts happening on the internet, the internet responds with something new, useful, and extraordinary in its own way.