What do you do when you’re bored? For years the answer was probably unique to you: you pursued your own hobby or your own uniquely bad habit. But chances are, in 2021, there is a fairly standard answer to this question: you open an app on your computer or phone that contains an algorithmically sorted list of user-generated content, and you scroll through it. You may not even like doing so very much. But still, in times of boredom, your scrolling thumb may start twitching. Social media has become the generic bad habit we are all trying to kick.
There are subtle differences between these infinite lists. They might be short-form videos (Tik-Tok), long-form videos (YouTube), images (Instagram), short text (Twitter), ostensibly from your social circle (Facebook), from people at work (LinkedIn), from strangers on the internet (Reddit), or from people who have red baseball caps (Parler). But in each case, the content and interaction patterns are largely the same. You choose people or subjects to follow. Some people will follow you. A central list gathers together all of the posts everyone has made with the option to “like” each one. And underneath sits a section for you to add your thoughts (and to have arguments).
As time has passed, the platforms have taken features from each other, creating one homogenous entity. Your choice of platform is now little more than which icon and shade of blue you prefer. Each lets you post an image or a video. Most let you post links. The constraints that made platforms unique (such as Twitter’s 140 character limit or Instagram’s image-only limit) have been lessened or simply bypassed by posting screenshots from the Notes app. Almost all platforms have tried the concept of “stories”, short fleeting content with a half-life of a day or so, a feature originally from Snapchat, that made its way into Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (and even, weirdly, the software development environment Visual Studio.)
“We built Fleets as a lower-pressure, ephemeral way for people to share their fleeting thoughts,” the VP of consumer product at Twitter said. But perhaps it would have been more accurate to say: we built fleets because we noticed our competitors doing so and thought we needed it too. In…