There was an idea that was popular at the start of 2022: after two years of the pandemic, this year was going to be different. That 2022 would be the start of something good; life would be lived more fully, without restrictions.
This idea trickled into our digital habits: there was a belief we were going to get out into the real world in 2022, our phones locked away, forgetting the whole days we had spent in front of a screen. Alongside this belief came the idea that social media would also get better. Lockdowns famously bred insensitivity and oversensitivity online and, now, with everyone getting some relief from this experience, the internet would be a far more pleasant and harmonious space. Right?
Instead, the internet – and specifically social media – got worse. Misinformation thrived, online debate became even more fraught, and platforms all pivoted to video but somehow became duller in the process. Though the world was not enamoured with social media before this year, nor blind to its obvious ills, the past 12 months have been uniquely bad for the industry: a slow-motion car crash for almost every platform, with the few sites escaping an identity crisis or full-on collapse, or making headlines for exclusively sinister reasons. The incentives to stay online in 2023 are difficult to locate.
This disaster wasn’t exclusive to just a handful of social media sites, but affected seemingly every mainstream platform in existence. Instagram’s transparent attempts to become TikTok, focusing on Reels and suggested videos, made it loathed by long-standing users. Facebook crawled toward increasing irrelevance – it, too, adopting some TikTok-esque features – with it and Instagram’s parent company, Meta, announcing mass layoffs for the first time in the company’s history, alongside some equally historic financial stagnation.
Since it was bought by Elon Musk at the end of October, Twitter has also experienced serious money troubles, reporting “massive drops in revenue” with advertisers (and users) fleeing the site. This is before you get into the reputational damage Musk has done to Twitter, making blue ticks a paid-for subscription service and reducing moderation to the point where hate speech has soared in his short time as owner.
There are few winners online this year, but one of them, it could be argued, is TikTok, which has experienced steadily rapid growth in both users and cultural salience since the early months of 2020. However, even TikTok has experienced serious stumbles, consistently making headlines for lawsuits surrounding children’s deaths, allowing the sudden rise of dangerous, extremist figures, like Andrew Tate, as well as for doing little to stem the spread of misinformation and harmful content among its incredibly young user base.
Other potential winners are the hugely popular, “authentic” social media platforms which have crept into the mainstream this year, such as single-post-a-day app, BeReal. But even their successes feels like red herrings: unless these platforms are used sparingly with a tight circle of good friends, they ultimately become another place to perform, only a shade different from their mainstream counterparts. It also feels likely that they will be a passing fad, with new ones popping up regularly but quickly fading into obsolescence.
But it wasn’t just platforms that were bad in 2022. Social media discourse itself was unhinged, starting the year with the alleged harm of West Elm Caleb, moving onto nepo babies and faux-outcry over feral girl summer, ending the year with articles going viral that have half the internet claiming that any form of conflict is emotional abuse.
As the journalist Rebecca Jennings wrote for Vox: “Our collective thirst for gossip and controversy, particularly during and post-lockdown, has trained many to actively seek out content that aggravates us and immediately grasp onto its most extreme interpretation.”
A “good” social media platform is now something of an oxymoron: even if one could exist in theory, our now baked-in online behaviours – that incentivise going to the extreme – make it an impossible feat in practice. It feels like there are very few spaces online where you can simply have fun.
While there may be some people who manage to log only an hour of screen time daily, spending these minutes engaging solely with friends and family, avoiding harmful and mind-numbing discourse, only consuming interesting ideas or helpful hacks that actually improve their day-to-day lives, this seems to be far from most of our experiences of being on the internet today. It feels as though, in the space of the year, the alleged benefits have been suddenly, vastly outweighed by the objective cons.
In 2023, we should begin being honest about what we get out of social media. Does it actually make our lives better, or expand our horizons? Does it make us happy? Does it do any of these things more often than it causes us anxiety?
Of course, a truly offline existence is not, for most of us, possible. Nor is it serious to suggest that people should forgo every mainstream platform, or even that lives spent entirely off the internet are inherently worthier. But we only do ourselves a disservice by ignoring the fact that most of us would benefit from using these places less.
Reducing our social media consumption is not straightforward or easy. It will require some amount of strength and an initial sacrifice in order to achieve a more healthy relationship with these platforms. The grip they have on our lives, even if we find them monotonous, is very real.
But when we take the time to really think about what is keeping us online, and how we could better spend that time - even if it’s doing barely anything at all – we may find the reasons to stay are far fewer than we might presently realise. We may even find there’s no longer any real benefit to social media at all.