In 2024, social media will get small.
Not small in influence, of course. As the US weathers an election likely to be both divisive and often divorced from reality, social media will again be a battleground for public opinion and perception. But the platforms on which these conversations will take place will be smaller in scale, more diverse, and less connected to one another.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, Donald Trump discovered he could speak directly to an audience of tens of millions on Twitter. Thrown off the platform after the January 6 insurrection, Trump moved to the much smaller Truth Social, a network whose main selling point seemed to be his presence. Trump lost something precious when he was deplatformed: the ability to speak to the “big room”—a platform that reached a broad swath of the people interested in public affairs.
Big-room spaces, like Twitter and Instagram, are continual battlegrounds for attention. They’re invaluable for activists, who want messages like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter to reach new converts to the movement, and for influencers who build power and revenue by building audiences. But they are also inherently conflicted spaces, as people of different points of view spar over what types of speech are appropriate for the space.
Trump is now speaking to a smaller room, but it’s one where virtually everyone who hears him agrees with him. He’s never going to be thrown off Truth Social, because his statements, no matter how inflammatory, are the raison d’être for the network.
Consciously or not, other platforms are moving in the same direction. Elon Musk’s compulsive destruction of Twitter is turning it into a smaller room, a safe space for extremists that makes it unsafe for those who don’t share their views. Reddit, long one of the most exciting spaces for informed, topical conversations, is shedding users as it implements unpopular, Muskian policies in hopes of generating much-needed revenue. Some subreddits are migrating to Discord, where their conversations won’t overlap with thousands of other topics on Reddit, but where they have full control over their chosen rules of the road.
Small-room networks can be deeply important spaces for communities to find support and solidarity. When you seek support for living with diabetes or without alcohol (two struggles I’m personally engaged in), you’re not looking for confrontation, but for camaraderie, comfort, and constructive advice. Millions of us find these spaces in subreddits, Facebook groups, or even on special-purpose social networks, such as Archive of One’s Own, which links together 5 million fan-fiction authors and fans each month.
But small rooms have a big downside: They’re as useful for Nazis as they are for knitters. These conversations, insulated from outside scrutiny, can normalize extreme points of view and lead people deeper into dark topics they expressed a passing interest in.
We need small-room networks—they introduce strangers to one another, building social capital and connection between people who might never interact in the physical world. But they further fragment the public sphere, which means the 2024 election may be even more fractious than the ones we’ve seen thus far in our social media age.