We're all lurkers now
No one's talking online anymore.
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, written by Kate Lindsay and edited by Nick Catucci.
I, for one, will never shut up. —Kate
Recently, my friends and I were talking about two different breakup announcements we had seen on Instagram. These weren’t from celebrities, but from regular people in our lives—one on Instagram Stories, using the close friends feature, and one—boldly—on the feed. Both cited the same reason for sharing the news on social media: They didn’t want to have to explain the painful particulars to different people over and over again and field hurtful questions. Don’t, one explicitly implored, ask any questions.
The regular person breakup announcement is something to unpack in a whole different post, but it wasn’t the only reason I found these posts odd. I couldn’t stop thinking about the thought process of turning to social media, emphasis on the social, and asking no one to talk to you.
This idea—that we can safely expect to insulate ourselves from responses to our posts, even on close friends, a feature that was designed for sharing only with people you presumably trust and feel comfortable with—is indicative of how rapidly the social media environment has changed in the just three years. We’re all just throwing up billboards now. Unless we’re the ones passively viewing the billboards. In other words, lurkers.
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TikTok user Taylor Stewart has a different term for it: ghost watchers. She recently shared a video about never wanting to post anything on Instagram anymore, saying the app is now filled with these ghost watchers who never comment or reach out.
“People who watch your every move, watch everything you’re doing, but they don’t support any of it,” she described. “It’s just people watching you, and it’s just icky.”
This echoes a wider sentiment I’ve seen creeping into my personal feeds: No one really posts anymore, no one’s having fun, and it’s partly for this reason that no one seems excited about any of the newer apps and features, like Threads, that keep popping up despite everything.
“As more people have been confronted with the consequences of constant sharing, social media has become less social and more media—a constellation of entertainment platforms where users consume content but rarely, if ever, create their own,” a recent Insider piece explains. “Influencers, marketers, average users, and even social-media executives agree: Social media, as we once knew it, is dead.”
So where is everyone? (Other than lurking in the list of viewers of your Instagram Story.) The Insider piece cites group chats as a reason for social media’s demise. And in fact, that conversation about breakup announcements that I mention above happened in a group chat of myself and six friends, which is where I now share literally every passing thought from my day that, five years ago, would have instead appeared as quippy tweets or sarcastic Instagram Stories.
This is a phenomenon that the people behind the increasingly-neglected social media apps have caught onto. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri recently revealed that most of Instagram’s recent growth has been in Stories and DMs, and recent job postings from TikTok show that the app is growing the team responsible for its messaging features.
It’s somewhat ironic to see tech companies now coming to the realization that people on social media may want to talk to each other. That’s why social media started, after all. It’s just that the people in charge dropped the ball on those features in 2020 during their frantic (and failed) race to usurp TikTok. Apps began prioritizing algorithms and discovery and ways of increasing views that de-emphasized direct connection, putting us all in the same place while somehow tearing us further apart.
So now social media’s almost five billion users are not turning to talk to each other but each turning outward, shouting their skincare routines or restaurant recommendations or opinions into a void. We’re all just online for ourselves, which means there are fewer and fewer people to be the audience—to like, comment, or otherwise interact. As a result, our outward-facing posts are getting less engagement, and we’re less inclined to share them. We’re growing silent, lurking, sitting in these digital rooms out of habit, and not because we really want to be there.