First-Gen Social Media Users Have Nowhere to Go

The collective erosion of X, Instagram, and Facebook marks a turning point for millennials, who are outgrowing a constant need to be plugged in.
Illustration of a person going up a neverending escalator in a ghostly social media mall
Illustration: Jacqui VanLiew; Getty Images

A golden age of connectivity is ending. “I deleted my Facebook years ago, spend at least three to six months off Twitter every year, and Bluesky invites are just sitting in my inbox,” a friend tells me when I ask how her relationship to social media has changed in recent times. “I basically only use [Instagram] Stories and almost never post on the grid. I do it once a week so I can get away with saying ‘Free Palestine’ without the algorithm punishing me. I refuse to get any more accounts. I’m over it.”

This is how it goes now, in what is being christened the twilight of an era of social media that redefined community building and digital correspondence. For many first-gen social media users—millennials between the ages of 27 and 42—there is a developing sentiment that the party is over.

Twitter is bad (sorry, I will never refer to it as X). Instagram is overrun with ads and influencers hawking face creams and fitness tips. TikTok, what originally felt like a glossier alternative to YouTube, increasingly resembles an outlet mall full of “dupes,” prizing hype over lasting influence.

Influence is one attribute Twitter never lacked, as evidenced by the mad dash in Silicon Valley to fill the gulf its collapse is leaving. I've spent an unhealthy amount of time on the platform over the last decade. It was the avenue of the Black Lives Matter movement, a megaphone for everyday users, and, through a wave of history-setting and history-unsettling US elections, transformed culture into a 24/7 participatory event. There is no #MeToo without Twitter, nor the beginnings of a racial reckoning in Hollywood. Twitter refashioned the look of communication through a vernacular of memes and GIFs, where resident collectives like Black Twitter and NBA Twitter excelled as virtuosos of the form.

It has now been a year since Elon Musk assumed control of Twitter, and in what felt like record time, he has taken a sledgehammer to everything that gave the platform its unique draw (issues of safety and inclusion were a problem under former CEO Jack Dorsey but have significantly worsened). There is a void in the social media universe that, until now, Twitter singularly occupied.

In its heyday, from 2008 to 2015, before digital currencies like retweets and views reoriented how users interacted with one another, no other platform offered what Twitter did, the way it did: up-to-the-second real-time conversation and analysis. It was a blank slate, and because it was a blank slate, it was a canvas to document what was happening to us and around us. It was revolutionary, and soon what we remember of it will be gone.

If the early promise of social media was to bring society closer to a virtual ideal, the most recent shift in how platforms are used has lost the plot. Along with Twitter, the erosion of the user experience on Facebook and Instagram—with tiered subscriptions, a proliferation of hate speech and misinformation, privacy being sold as a luxury, and the threat of generative AI—marks a sharp turning point in the value of the social web. It’s “too much echo chamber,” my friend says of what the social internet has evolved into. “It’s too much viewing people you know in real life as marketing categories.” Everything about the current online user experience, she says, is “too mind-melting.”

Social media today is less driven by actual social connection. It is powered by the “appearance of social connection,” says Marlon Twyman II, a quantitative social scientist at USC Annenberg who specializes in social network analysis. “Human relationships have suffered and their complexity has diminished. Because many of our interactions are now occurring in platforms designed to promote transactional interactions that provide feedback in the form of attention metrics, many people do not have much experience or practice interacting with people in settings where there are collective or communal goals for a larger group.” This has also led to people being more image-conscious and identity-focused in real-world interactions, too, Twyman adds.

I recently polled a group of friends—all first-gen social media adopters like myself—and the collective sentiment was one of burnout and disinterest. The mode in which people use platforms has changed, to Twyman’s point, but we’ve also been on the internet for what feels like a very long time. All admitted to a decrease in overall consumption; according to UK marketing research firm GWI, social media usage is on the decline. “I stopped sending tweets in May,” another friend shared over email. “I fundamentally believe that we’ve outgrown the need to all be talking in one place,” he said. “There might be enough evidence that it’s a net negative. So I think my usage has reflected that.”

We were among Twitter’s earliest cohorts. I joined the service in 2008 and officially signed up in 2009 after a brief absence, just as Young Jeezy’s lyric “My president is Black” captured the promise of what a better tomorrow could bring, even as we struggled to get there. For my generation, social media was more than access—it was opportunity. It was a chance at a future that felt out of reach. We graduated into a recession, sold on the guarantee of a middle-class life only to be saddled with a lifetime’s worth of student loan debt. Opportunity was scarce. Instability was a given. We didn’t have jobs but we did have Wi-Fi. Our sole allegiance was to connection, to each other. So we logged on.

Millennials are the last of the analog world, both of yesterday and tomorrow, the bridge between what was and what will be. Maybe this is where my hesitation takes root, and why it feels like there are no good apps left for socializing the way we used to. We were raised on a diet of chatrooms and Myspace. Our expression was devoutly digital. We signed up en masse because what we sought in the next frontier of adulthood, we slowly realized, was being actualized online. Friendster, Blogger, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook were where we found community, honed our creative urges, and secured careers. In time, we used social media to remake civic life.

It’s not that I consider myself too old for social media, or the pace and attention it requires. I’m just less interested in being everywhere these days. I also have no problem paying for apps; I fully believe people should support the communities they contribute to. What I won’t pay for is an app that has no common sense, one that doesn’t work toward a collective end. Perhaps the matter at hand is an accessibility issue. The internet promised us access, but I didn’t realize the totality of what that meant. It meant always being plugged in, available, in the know and up to date on what’s trending. That is a requirement of time that I no longer wish to give over.

It could also be that the rules have changed, and keep changing. “People are savvier regarding impression management with audiences,” Twyman adds, signaling what TikTok captures and what the next phase of social media will be centered around: a future focused on visual immersion, fueled by AI, location-based software, and augmented reality.

Competitors have jockeyed to usurp Twitter’s fading influence since Musk’s takeover. Similar to what the siloed enclaves of the early internet attempted to accomplish, Mastodon, Spill, Bluesky, and Threads offer unique alternatives. But the reason none of them have seized mass culture the way Facebook and Twitter did for my friends and I in the mid 2000s is because we socialize completely differently now. The old way is gone. Nothing can take its place. And nothing should.