The End of the Social Era Can’t Come Soon Enough

By Nick Bilton

It seems increasingly likely that our society will one day view our infatuation with Twitter, Facebook, and the like as a passing, often destructive fad.

Many people imagine 19th-century antebellum America as a frontier fantasia: men with handlebar mustaches sitting in dusty saloons, kicking back moonshine whiskey, as a piano player picks out tunes in the background. In reality, though, life was a little more sordid: Americans spent their time after work in fully legal heroin dens; in 1885, opium and cocaine were even given to children to help with teething. “Cocaine Toothache Drops,” which were marketed as presenting an “instantaneous cure” were sold for 15 cents a box. Today, in the midst of our opioid crisis, we hear about this past and wonder unequivocally, what the hell were they thinking?

I often wonder the same thing when I think about social media and its current domination of our society. Will a future generation look back in 10, 20, or maybe 100 years from now and wonder, mystifyingly, why a generation of humans believed in these platforms despite mounting evidence that they were tearing society apart—being used as terrorist recruitment tools, facilitating bullying, driving up anxiety, and undermining our elections—despite the obvious benefits and facilitations they provide? Indeed, some of the people who gave us these platforms are already beginning to wonder if this is the case. Last month, I wrote a piece detailing how some early Facebook employees now feel about the monster they have created. As one early Facebook employee told me, “I lay awake at night thinking about all the things we built in the early days and what we could have done to avoid the product being used this way.”

After the piece published, I expected to receive angry e-mails and text messages from current or former Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram employees. Instead, my inbox was flooded with former (and even current!) employees of these social networks, who confided that they felt the same way. Some even mentioned they had abandoned the platforms themselves. The people who reached out ranged in pay grade from engineers to C-suite executives. Some venture capitalists who once funded the companies, or their competitors, have told me that they no longer use them—or do so sparingly. After witnessing Trump’s use of social networks, Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures wrote last month that he had deleted Facebook and Twitter from his phone. “This has really had a massive improvement on every day of my life in ways I can’t describe unless you try it yourself,” he wrote. This squares with the countless journalists who have told me they have deleted their accounts, removed the apps from their phone, or simply walked away from the world of social media.

When I noticed one religiously Twitter-loving V.C. had become dormant on the platform, I e-mailed him to ask if he was O.K. His response: “Having a hard time imagining why I would come back [to Twitter]. Feels like an addictive, inflammatory disease that I have kicked, much to my immune system’s pleasure.” As my colleague Maya Kosoff wrote this week, the social-media boom, powered by the growth of mobile computing, is over. “Whether the tech industry can move beyond mining our social anxieties to sell ads, or feeding our anger to increase engagement, may require renegotiating a new relationship between the Bay Area and the rest of the country,” she aptly pointed out. It is a feeling that, ironically, coexists in certain quadrants of the Bay Area and the rest of the country.

I for one, am part of that group now (and have been for months). I deleted Instagram, Facebook, and Snap from my phone. I now log onto Facebook once a month, if that (and it’s more for a drive-by look to make sure no one has messaged me on there, rather than to like a post or comment on a picture). I haven’t logged into Snap in a year or more. I went from sharing a picture on Instagram three times a day, to now doing so three times a year. While I still use Twitter sparingly for professional purposes, I delete the app from my phone on weekends because looking at it either makes me sad, angry, or anxious. (I can’t recall the last time I looked at social media and felt happy afterwards, or even enriched by the experience.) This might not seem like much on the surface, but this is coming from someone who loved Twitter so much that I chose to write a book about it.

Yes, it’s true that we’ve heard this all before—that people are abandoning social media, that the platforms are doomed. The New York Times has written variations on that story so many times over, it could have been a standing column in the business section of the paper. But I do believe that this time is different, the beginning of a massive shift, and I believe it’s the fault of these social networks.

One of the problems is that these platforms act, in many ways, like drugs. Facebook, and every other social-media outlet, knows that all too well. Your phone vibrates a dozen times an hour with alerts about likes and comments and retweets and faves. The combined effect is one of just trying to suck you back in, so their numbers look better for their next quarterly earnings report. Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s earliest investors and the company’s first president, came right out and said what we all know: the whole intention of Facebook is to act like a drug, by “[giving] you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.” That, Parker said, was by design. These companies are “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya has echoed this, too. “Do I feel guilty?” he asked rhetorically on CNN about the role Facebook is playing in society. “Absolutely I feel guilt.”

And then, there’s the biggest reason why people are abandoning the platforms: the promise of connection has turned out to be a reality of division. We’ve all watched the way Donald J. Trump used social media to drive a wedge between us all, the way he tweets his sad and pathetic insecurities out to the world, without a care for how calling an equally insecure rogue leader a childish name might put us all on the brink of nuclear war. There’s a point that watching it all happen in real time makes you question what you’re doing with your life. As for conversing with our fellow Americans, we’ve all tried, unsuccessfully, to have a conversation on these platforms, which has so quickly devolved into a shouting match, or pile-on from perfect strangers because your belief isn’t the same as theirs. Years ago, a Facebook executive told me that the biggest reason people unfriend each other is because they disagree on an issue. The executive jokingly said, “Who knows, if this keeps up, maybe we’ll end up with people only having a few friends on Facebook.” Perhaps, worse of all, we’ve all watched as Russia has taken these platforms and used them against us in ways no one could have comprehended a decade ago.

And let’s hand it to them—Russia has used our social networks to sow discord like a marionettist wills a marionette. As one government official told me recently, “Putin’s surreptitious propaganda campaign has been one of the most successful in modern history.” All he needed, the official said, was social media. For the first time since I signed up for these platforms, I’m now in the camp of people wondering what the hell were we thinking?