How a social network falls apart

How a social network falls apart
Mar 2023

Twitter is in a period of decline. The site still functions, people are still using it, but there's a familiar stink that lingers on the website. It reminds me of the twilight days of two other social media platforms I've used: LiveJournal and Tumblr -- onetime vibrant communities that grew in popularity until everyone seemed to be using them, which then began a long, slow death.

Pop onto LiveJournal and Tumblr today, and you'll still see inscrutable blogs, endless GIFs, and earnest writing. But something is missing -- although there's still content and posters, the sites no longer feel like the communities they once were.

LiveJournal began as an online diary service in 1999, but by the time I signed up for the site in the early 2000s, it was the central hub for what is now known as fandom. Fans of popular media properties like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings flocked to the site to share their enthusiasm and creative endeavors. Some of these fans even garnered fans of their own; they were dubbed "big name fans," and mini-fandoms formed around them. Creators like Cassandra Clare, now author of the young adult fiction series The Mortal Instruments, would post fanfiction and update their blogs with musings on their media of choice.

From there, the site got worse and worse

Things started to change in 2007 as LiveJournal's then owner, Six Apart, started looking toward a sale. In May of that year, just months before the company would be sold to Russian company SUP, blogs across various fandom communities started to be suspended without warning, including the popular Harry Potter erotic fanfiction community Pornish_Pixies. LiveJournal said that the reasoning behind this was to "protect minors," but community members weren't buying what appeared to be a much broader cleanup of anything that looked remotely edgy. One user wrote at the time that because they wrote fanfiction that dealt with difficult themes, they felt they were being unfairly grouped with pedophiles and predators.

"As a queer, feminist writer who explores the darker aspects of human nature, many of my stories deal with incest, rape, and child molestation," they said. "As such, I belonged to and contributed to several of the communities which have been suspended and frankly I'm pretty offended. I don't like being lumped in with rapists and pedophiles and other 'monsters on the web.'"

From there, the site got worse and worse -- more unstable, littered with ads -- and users began to flee. Over time, it felt like a ghost town. After the sale, LiveJournal's new owner, SUP, was not really interested in the fandom aspect of the site, didn't invest in it, and certainly did not listen to those users. I had maintained a blog on LiveJournal from the beginning of high school to my freshman year of college, but my interest in the platform dwindled. It was no longer a vibrant space full of conversation anymore. It didn't function as well without people on it. "Big name fans" like Clare had already moved on to the greener pastures of original fiction, and the endless debates on the new ownership made every conversation boring. Eventually, I migrated to Tumblr, where many of the fandom communities I was interested in had gone. And the cycle began again.

How a social network falls apart

How a social network falls apart

What's remarkable about experiencing Tumblr's decline was how similar it was to LiveJournal's. Tumblr was a vibrant user-driven showcase of creativity, but the sale to Yahoo in 2013 started to change things. Like LiveJournal before it, adult content, much of it from fandom communities, was increasingly put under scrutiny by the site's owners. Tumblr was an excellent platform for photos and illustration, and if you participated in fandom as a shipper -- rooting for romantic couples within your fandom's characters -- then Tumblr was a great place for looking at and singing the praises of shippy and often erotic fan art. In 2018, a year after Yahoo was acquired by Verizon, all adult content and nudity would be banned from the platform. The terms of this ban made it difficult to make art that depicted romantic or sexual tension in the way that fans were used to -- or even to draw things that had nudity but weren't sexual at all. It didn't just ban depictions of sex acts but all states of undress and nudity. If your content was flagged as explicit content, you ran the risk of having your entire blog flagged as well, rendering it invisible to anyone other than your followers. It was not worth the risk to toe the line.

The algorithm that Tumblr employed to find nudity on the platform was also extremely bad. Users found that it flagged images without any nudity as explicit and that it misidentified images of the cartoon Garfield as pornography. With fandom artists no longer able to grow their communities, Tumblr lost the ability to grow, too.

Twitter under Elon Musk's tenure feels less stable

It's hard not to see the parallels to the current state of Twitter. Almost immediately after Twitter was bought by Elon Musk, he started making unpopular changes to the platform -- some of them so unpopular he had to immediately take them back, like banning links to other social media platforms, which Musk called "free advertising" for those competitors. Others, like the new feature that shows you how many times your tweet has been viewed or the ability to write 4,000-character tweets, fundamentally change the nature of the site and make it less usable.

In general, Twitter under Musk's tenure feels less stable, with users reporting more downtime and errors than before. The proliferation of random ads reminds me of Tumblr just before I left it, when the ads on the site became almost Dada-esque. There's a certain amount of muck on the site that I haven't previously experienced as a user. The site takes forever to load, the mobile app chugs to load my timeline each time I open it. Privacy features like Twitter Circle, which allow you to tweet to a smaller audience, and locked accounts, which make your account totally private, keep breaking. The site can't even stay afloat during huge pop culture moments like Rihanna's halftime show at the Super Bowl.

The one element that makes Twitter different from Tumblr and LiveJournal -- besides not being a space mainly dominated with screamingly horny teenage girls -- is the pervasiveness of its leader. While Tumblr users once idolized platform founder David Karp, and LiveJournal users were aware enough of who ran and owned the site, Musk looms much larger as Twitter's owner. His presence on the site, up to and including picking fights with various individual users, makes him feel less like the CEO of a social media website and more like a tyrannical forum moderator. The tone of the site comes from the top, and it's difficult to want to post on a site owned by someone who openly believes that "the media" is racist against white people.

How a social network falls apart

How a social network falls apart

The current situation on Twitter reminds me of the forums of the comedy website Something Awful. Something Awful is far more notorious than LiveJournal and Tumblr, and for good reason. Rather than a soft, friendly place to be a fan, it was a harsh and angry place to hate things. The intensity and often hyperbolic nature of the posters' orneriness ironically also led to the kind of unfettered creativity you'd see in both the LiveJournal and Tumblr communities. Even if you haven't heard of Something Awful before, it's likely you've encountered an iconic piece of internet humor that originated from the site. "All Your Base Are Belong To Us," "You're The Man Now Dog," and "I Can Has Cheezburger" all originate from the site, and its many users have gone on to become humorists, game developers, and even journalists.

Like LiveJournal and Tumblr before it, the tone for the site came from the top. Because its founder, Richard "Lowtax" Kyanka, cultivated a space where mockery was de rigueur, that was the kind of behavior you would expect if you fell out of line with Kyanka's rules and mods. Women and trans people on the site reported being antagonized by Kyanka himself, who made his bigoted feelings on transgender people extremely clear. One of the most infamous subforums on the site, Fuck You And Die, was also shut down by Kyanka in 2020, who said it had become a "fucking racist shithole." Kyanka's toxicity became so pervasive that even disagreeing with him on another site became a bannable offense; in such a hostile environment, the forum users openly rebelled against him up until the point of his death. The news that he would sell the site was met with celebration; after his passing, forum users mostly felt sorry for his ex-wives and children.

What's allowed Twitter to continue, even in its ramshackle state, is that there's no obvious next home for the people on it to migrate to. The "big name fan" equivalents of Twitter -- its power users who are often celebrities like Stephen King or other figures of real-world influence -- can't just pivot to journalism or find another platform where they will have similar influence. While Twitter alternatives like Mastodon have seen an influx of users as Twitter slowly winds down, there just isn't the same level of centralization on that platform as there is on Twitter. On Mastodon, I can't bully a US senator while I catch up on some celebrity gossip and then read breaking news straight from the journalist reporting it themselves.

In all of these cases -- LiveJournal, Tumblr, Twitter, and even Something Awful -- it's the users who ultimately decide if the sites are viable. We are all just following a horde of posters as they find new places to post, looking for the places where posting feels safest and most plentiful. Twitter is already beginning its sad half-life as advertisers leave the platform and people look for the thing that will replace it, a problem that threatened Musk so much that he briefly banned links to competing social media platforms before reversing course. He knows as well as I do that a site doesn't have to go offline to be dead.