Earlier this week, Neil Gaiman was interviewed on Icelandic television. Around the twenty-five minute mark of the program, the topic turned to the author’s thoughts about the internet. “I love blogging. I blog less now in the era of microblogging,” Gaiman explained, referring to his famously long-running online journal hosted at neilgaiman.com. “I miss the days of just sort of feeling like you could create a community by talking in a sane and cheerful way to the world.”
As he continues, it becomes clear that Gaiman’s affection for this more personal and independent version of online communication is more than nostalgia. As he goes on to predict:
“But it’s interesting because people are leaving (social media). You know, Twitter is over, yeah Twitter is done, Twitter’s… you stick a fork in, it’s definitely overdone. The new Twitters, like Threads and Blue sky… nothing is going to do what that thing once did. Facebook works but it doesn’t really work. So I think probably the era of blogging may return and maybe people will come and find you and find me again.”
In these quips, Gaiman is reinforcing a vision of the internet that I have been predicting and promoting in my recent writing for The New Yorker (e.g., this and this and this). Between 2012 to 2022, we came to believe that the natural structure for online interaction was for billions of people to all use the same small number of privately-owned social platforms. We’re increasingly realizing now that it was this centralization idea itself that was unnatural. The underlying architecture of the internet already provides a universal platform on which anyone can talk to anyone else about any topic. We didn’t additionally need all of these conversations to be consolidated into the same interfaces and curated by the same algorithms.
The future of the internet that most excites me is also, in many ways, a snapshot of its past. It’s a place where the Neil Gaimans of the world don’t need to feed their thoughts into an engagement engine, but can instead put out a virtual shingle on their own small patch of cyberspace and attract and build a more intimate community of like-minded travelers. This doesn’t necessitate a blog — podcasts, newsletters, and video series have emerged as equally engaging mediums for independent media production. The key is a communication landscape that is much more diverse and distributed and interesting than what we see when everyone is using the same two or three social apps.
This vision is not without its issues. The number one concern I hear about a post-social media online world is the difficulty of attracting large audiences. For content creators, by far the biggest draw to a service like Twitter or Instagram is that their algorithms could, if you played things just right, grant you viral audience growth.
Take myself as an example. Over the past fifteen years I’ve slowly built this newsletter to around 80,000 loyal subscribers who really seem to connect with what I have to say. If I had instead directed my energy during this period toward a social platform (which I somewhat infamously refused to do), I probably could have gathered ten times more followers.
I’m not sure, however, that I care. What exactly is a social media follower anyway? A couple years ago, for example, publishing houses began signing major social media influencers to book deals under the assumption that their huge follower counts would yield automatic sales. Things didn’t work out as planned. I think I’m happy with my 80,000 subscribers, many of whom I know by name, and who have been reading and commenting on my work for many years. It feels like a family while the social media influencers I know often experience their audiences more like an unruly mob that they’re struggling to pacify.
An online world in which it’s hard to be a superstar, but easier to find a real sense of community, sounds like a good tradeoff to me. I’m hoping Neil Gaiman is right that the Age of Twitter really is coming to an end, and that a return the quieter, deeper pleasures of a more homegrown social internet will soon return. I remember fondly read Gaiman’s blog during the early 2000s. There were no likes or virality, but I did feel connected to an author I liked. Can’t that be good enough?
In Other News: On the latest episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, I take a critical look at the idea of “laziness,” exploring more effective ways of thinking about struggles to get important things done. (watch | listen)