How Did We Get So Stuck on Here?

By John Herrman

Our complicated relationship with social media might be simpler than it feels. Just remember how it started.

Credit...Simoul Alva

It’s a testament to the power of the biggest social platforms that many common complaints about them sound contradictory.

They’re accelerators for extremism that simultaneously uphold suffocating consensus. They’re wastes of attention and should play a smaller role in people’s lives; however, they also need to be improved, refined and purged of bad actors, whoever you think they might be. They’re advanced surveillance machines, but they also routinely serve irrelevant recommendations and ads. They’re cutting-edge behavior modification tools, but they’re also overtly spammy, seeking engagement through clumsy and often misleading notifications.

And for, or despite, all those reasons, people can’t seem to leave them — a point bolstered by financial statements. Facebook, as a company, is doing extraordinarily well, and Twitter saw its revenue grow last quarter.

Still, within the disparate critiques of social media, there is a shared experience for many — a loss of patience with “this site,” or a withering assessment of how people behave “on here.” An urge to type “this hellsite” into the hellsite itself, to like that post about how much the poster hates posting. They’re aware of the irony; still, they can’t stop. They might even suggest it’s their own fault, which it isn’t, at least not entirely. They’re just stuck. Maybe you are too.

What does it mean to be stuck, in platform terms? It’s not the same as being trapped; you’re as free to leave Instagram as you were to join it in the first place. Neither is being stuck a mere habit, or pattern of personal behavior over which you’ve lost some amount of conscious control.

Stuckness, instead, is a largely unforeseen consequence of the manner in which modern social networks became popular and powerful in the first place.

Social networks, even the very biggest, are virtually worthless without people — not just as customers, but as sources of value for other customers. The term of art for this phenomenon is the “network effect,” a concept predating social media and the internet in general. A telephone system, for instance, gets better as more people use it, and is at its best when everyone has a number; likewise, a social network needs multiple users to function at all, but tends to become more compelling the more it connects.

Today’s biggest social networks were founded by people and supported by investors for whom network effects were both a gospel and a plan: build a network, reach a critical mass, watch it grow, then accelerate, creating an insurmountable advantage over anyone else attempting to connect people in similar ways.

In 2012, in an email exchange with Facebook’s then chief financial officer, revealed during a House antitrust subcommittee hearing in 2020, Mark Zuckerberg made his case for buying up smaller competitors, among them, at the time, Instagram:

There are network effects around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different.

It’s a tidy way to understand the process that led to the popular internet of today: a bunch of companies trying to establish unassailable and maximally broad networks through the use of different “mechanics” (i.e. styles of sharing or connection or content production). It also hints at the fear that each network could fail as quickly as it succeeded if a critical mass of users had enough reason to leave — producing, basically, a death spiral.

To whatever extent Facebook was “the next Myspace,” it spent much of its first decade fending off, or acquiring, anything that might credibly call itself the next Facebook, frequently altering the environment around the users it already had in the process. Later in the same 2012 email exchange, Mr. Zuckerberg characterized the strategy of buying and incorporating competitors and their “dynamics” and “mechanics” as a way to “buy time” before they could reach threatening scales.

The plan worked, or at least has not failed so far: Nothing has been able to supplant Facebook the way Facebook supplanted others, and its network has remained more or less intact. User-wise, there have been signs in financial disclosures for years that Facebook’s core property is reaching some sort of plateau of activity, which could be explained in countless (again seemingly contradictory) ways: youth exodus, maturity in different markets, misinformation, conflict, boredom, politics.

Still, Facebook remains the only Facebook. And that dominance has led some users to reasonably feel stuck with the platform. The networks people signed up for in the aughts have changed beneath their feet and lasted longer than even their creators might have imagined — realizing network effects to their theoretical extremes, genuinely aspiring to connect everyone, for no more specific purpose than connection itself, which, conveniently, was thought to be worth a lot of money.

Over time, these networks became more strange, leading some users to consider, as network effect theorists had in the past, the possibility of a network that becomes worse as it continues to grow. Many longtime users of established social networks continue to have great experiences, finding new ways to appreciate familiar spaces. Late joiners enjoy the benefit of fresher connections and no baggage. Others are plainly miserable.

Stuck users are subjected to indefinite experimentation. Through their chosen networks within the larger network, users also experience subordinate forms of stuckness, pulled into intense group social dynamics rooted in hasty friend requests made years ago.

Stuckness is struggling to explain why you’re still part of the network that’s making you frustrated, anxious, unhappy or bored. Stuckness is a genuine question that sounds like a humiliating joke: Where else would I read tweets? Stuckness is struggling to quantify, or merely conceptualize, the cost of leaving a network into which you’ve invested time and attention. Stuckness is a basic sense of obligation, co-opted and turned back against you. Stuckness is the lingering, uneasy spirit of the long-passed fear of missing out.

Stuckness is also the inevitable result of a commercialized social and civic space, built only to grow. Stuckness is not quite the same as “needing to be here for work,” but not entirely different, either.

An instructive way to think about this is to imagine every social network as a version of LinkedIn, the platform that helpfully elucidates the space between what we think of as social platforms (feeds) and what we imagine to be more commercial platforms (something like eBay).

LinkedIn, it is fair to say, provides a less-than-joyful experience to some of its users, demanding labor, attention and particular styles of performance, all while subjecting them to upselling, focus-grabbing notifications and an endless stream of content about recruiting, job-hunting and related subjects. Many people joined for a reason: It was a new place to find a job, or to hire people. Years later, however, they find themselves stuck. Leaving has a fuzzy but material cost, even for the happily employed, and LinkedIn’s dominance has ensured that this cost remains, if not high, at least real enough to discourage leaving. Now, consider what distinguishes LinkedIn from Facebook or Instagram. Some “mechanics”? Users’ intentions when signing up?

None of this is to say that the attention of the stuck isn’t drawn elsewhere, to newer platforms that encourage new kinds of communication with freshly assembled networks of people. Joining and forming other networks is one of the more obvious responses to feeling stuck, even if it presages new varieties of stuckness down the line. TikTok and Discord, for example, offered mechanics and experiences that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram did not, at least in the beginning. For the already stuck, however, these networks are often complements, not replacements.

Among some tech investors, this sort of stuckness has inspired a fresh take on what happens to platforms in the long term: not a death spiral, but the slow bleeding of time and attention by more focused competitors, through which users remain present, distracted, but — crucially — available to be drawn back in (consider the rise of Facebook Groups in recent years, or the persistent growth of Facebook Marketplace). Users sticking around to talk about how much they hate sticking around is merely stuckness reproducing itself.

This sort of stuckness isn’t permanent or entirely unexpected, but it is characterized by lasting longer than anyone anticipated. And though recognizing one’s stuckness might not make it easier to leave a social media platform, it has other benefits.

If nothing else, it’s a more genuine form of connection to our fellow user than any platform-generated mechanic can provide: a shared feeling that this — whatever it is — isn’t what we signed up for.