Social Media Is for Strangers Now

As Instagram and Facebook fade from relevance, the connections between friends are fading online too.

Fans on their phones at the Rock in Rio music festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on September 3, 2022
Mauro Pimentel / AFP / Getty

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Instagram just isn’t what it used to be. With Gen Z users flocking to TikTok, social media as we know it is changing—and we’re leaving our friends and family behind.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

All Alone

In October, Instagram reported 2 billion monthly active users. This milestone was surpassed by Facebook, which was sitting close to 3 billion users in the fall. So why are these platforms less relevant than ever? It turns out that gathering more than a quarter of the world’s population in one place creates the same problem as inviting too many random people to a party: It becomes hard to find your friends.

The origin of the term social media is unclear (multiple people claim to have coined the phrase), but it emerged as a recognized phenomenon in the 1990s as the internet transitioned from an archival space to an interactive one with the advent of instant messaging, forums, and chat rooms. In the 2000s, websites such as Friendster and MySpace established social media primarily as a space for connecting with people you knew in real life, although you had to visit their profile pages to do so. Facebook and Instagram brought you updates from your friends and others in a convenient—and addictive—feed.

But while they continue to grow overall, Facebook and Instagram are struggling to attract and retain the younger generation that’s crucial for their longevity. Why? The simple answer: Gen Z prefers video.

Meta has been scrambling to capture the magic of an app young people do love, TikTok. In August, I wrote about Facebook’s new TikTok-influenced feed prioritizing algorithmically recommended content. The kids have not come back. Instagram has been gradually refocusing on short-form video, making it difficult to access the chronological timeline and pushing more recommended posts into feeds. Last week, I wrote that Instagram is over.

Here’s the thing: People don’t post videos just for their friends to watch. You can FaceTime the people you care about, or send them a voice note. If you’re in high school or college, you can message pals and share videos with your social circle on Snapchat. But if you’re posting videos on TikTok (or Instagram Reels), they’re for an audience. The algorithm enables this, by promoting your videos on the “For You” pages of anyone it identifies as a receptive viewer.

As my colleague Ian Bogost wrote in a recent essay, “Social media turned you, me, and everyone into broadcasters (if aspirational ones).” Although broadcasting may not come naturally to everyone—a feeling, as a Millennial, I understand all too well—TikTok’s rapid rise suggests that the appeal of watching videos made by strangers is universal. And the fact that these changes have not been frustrating enough to trigger the cultural resurgence of an app like Facebook suggests that perhaps, after years of reading status updates and scrolling through baby pics from the same few dozen extended family members and old classmates, we have moved on.

But as the feeds fade and viral videos take over, we are losing something important: a place to hang out online. Twitter is the “town square,” a space for the exchange of ideas and dumb jokes. (It is also, of course, struggling, but because of the turbulent leadership of a member of Gen X and not the disruptive habits of Gen Z.) However, there is no longer an online equivalent of the local bar or coffee shop: a place to encounter friends and family and find person-to-person connection.

TikTok offers almost no features to connect one-on-one. (In my experience, when people message each other on TikTok, it’s mostly just to, well, send each other TikToks.) Subreddits and servers on Discord and Mastodon provide the modern equivalents of the old chat rooms, roped-off areas for people with shared interests. But now more than ever, we’re all on social media, surrounded by billions of people, and somehow totally alone.


Today’s News

  1. Germany arrested 25 people suspected of being involved in a far-right plot to overthrow the government.
  2. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could change the future of election law.
  3. Peru’s Congress ousted President Pedro Castillo from office, voting to replace him with the vice president.


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Evening Read

An illustration featuring a grainy black-and-white image of Victoria Obidina, a Ukrainian paramedic who was held as a POW in Russia
Getty; The Atlantic

“I Just Wanted the Whole Thing to Be Over”

By Anna Nemtsova

Victoria Obidina realized that she was in a Russian prison only when the blindfold was removed from her face. There was paperwork for a DNA test before her. She read “Taganrog,” the name of a Russian town in the Rostov region, immediately east of Ukraine, where Ukrainian prisoners of war are registered before being shuffled around prison colonies across Russia. Two middle-aged male interrogators ordered the 27-year-old Ukrainian paramedic to strip naked, she told me recently, then they took photographs of her from the front and back.

Prison authorities may conduct intimate searches, but Obidina regards her experience not as a legitimate security measure but as coercive sexualized humiliation.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Skyscrapers pasted onto a beige background with red, blue, and black squares
Miki Lowe

Read. “Mayakovsky in New York,” a found poem by Annie Dillard.

“At each stop an additional story grows / onto the roofs. Finally houses with squares / and dots of windows rise up. No matter how far / you throw back your head, there are no tops.”

Watch. The 2016 film Arrival (streaming on multiple platforms), which our writer argues is a contender for best-ever blockbuster art film.

Play our daily crossword.

Video may be the future of social media, but Gen Z recently brought back a retro tool for shooting stills: digital cameras. Young people are getting their hands on cameras from the early 2000s and posting the photos online, including on TikTok, where the #digitalcamera hashtag has more than 155.9 million views. (TikTok recently introduced a carousel feature.) As someone who grew up with a digital camera constantly hanging on my wrist, I was skeptical of this trend. But when I tried it myself, I discovered that Y2K-style flash photography does look irresistibly nostalgic in 2022—as old as that may make you (and me) feel.

— Kate

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Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.