Welcome to the latest installment of Platform Shift, a column about the way the internet changes how and what we watch on TV.
The ongoing turmoil at Twitter and Reddit has led to two recurring questions:
I will kind of answer these questions by the time we’re done, but first I want to explain why I think they’re the wrong questions. The former question is too broad. I don't really think things as big as "the internet" or, say, "television" get better or worse on the sort of timeline we're talking about here; certain sub-sections and scenes of these big channels and mediums can have peaks and valleys, and they create an impression of something getting better or worse. "Television" hasn't gotten worse since the so-called "golden age," in my opinion — we just don't have flagships like turn-of-the-millennium HBO actively transforming the medium. Same is true for the internet. The internet is what the internet has always been — fine — but a lot of the things that we have done on it for the past decade or so are not doing so hot.
Which brings me to the second question that’s been circulating for the past couple of months: If Twitter and Reddit die, where will everyone go? This one, too, I will humbly reject. As someone who never really found their "community" on Reddit, and felt that Twitter wasn't exactly the square of any town of which they wanted to be a part, I can't relate. If both platforms disappeared today, I would continue trading DMs with the same small group of people I always have, whether that's via Gchat or Slack or Discord. Now, that may not be your relationship to Twitter and Reddit, which is fine. Many of my best friends are Redditors, as they say. But it does bring me to what I think is the more interesting question to be asking relative to the turmoil at these two companies, which is this: Where will all the fans go? This gets closer to answerable.
In the context of TV, Twitter and Reddit have proven to be wildly important to fandoms in ways that play to the strengths of each platform. It could be compellingly argued that the best actual function of Twitter was for live-watching television, whether that meant screaming at athletes, commiserating during reality shows, feeling somewhat less alone while hate-watching, or rallying around the odd watercooler prestige show that turned into appointment viewing. And Reddit served as an easily findable and annexed (and search-optimized) way for superfans to huddle, theorize, slapfight, and generally commune over a shared vector of interest.
It would be reductive to say that both platforms were powered by fans, but they were both powered by a mixture of energies of which fandom was a proportionally large part. Twitter sprinkled in some outrage and self-promotion; Reddit had equal dashes of dopey enthusiasm and self-help. But the fandom was key: take away, say, the massive audiences live-watching Abbott Elementary and Insecure and all sports on Twitter, or the still-bustling subreddits for Rick and Morty and Game of Thrones, and either platform starts to lose an essential driver of not just engagement but its very culture.
Now, to be clear: I don’t think Twitter or Reddit is dying, per se. These are huge websites. They’re just weakening — falling apart, piece by piece, chunk by chunk. Try as their owners might to alienate their core users through monetization campaigns that undermine the fundamental virtues of the platforms, they both still have a critical mass of people. For a lot of folks, that’ll be enough.
What’s more interesting to me is the communities who will choose to leave these platforms, whether as part of a coordinated effort or something more gradual and organic. They’ve certainly got options: if people want to wade through the signup process, Mastodon exists, although I don’t see many casual fans going through the trouble. Threads is corporate-approved cringe in the eyes of many terminally online people but that actually makes it an ideal forum for corporate-approved discourse about normie television. (No shots, by the way: I’ll have an account wherever Bachelor Nation congregates.)
I’m most bullish on the prospects of Bluesky, which combines some of the virtues of Mastodon while being, quite subjectively, much cooler and more user-friendly. In particular, the ability for users to create their own feeds — which are algorithms devoted to specific interests and functions — plays particularly well to subcultures and fandoms. It’s got a wily, early Tumblr air at present, thanks to the fact that furries have already migrated to the platform en masse, like Elves leaving Middle-Earth.
As for Reddit alternatives, the choices are more complicated. TikTok is underappreciated as a rallying point for niche fandoms, but it lends itself to lurking, and also not everyone likes wildly incongruous fan edits. It’s no direct replacement. One of the most popular subreddits, r/MaleFashionAdvice, recently decamped from Reddit for a combination of Discord and Substack, which is an interesting bifurcation: housing shared knowledge on one platform and letting the community go wild on a separate, slightly more private forum that isn’t indexed on search.
Discord’s a big jump from Reddit — if you’re on any well-populated Discord server, you know how quickly conversation moves there. Discord also lacks Reddit’s key feature: the ability to pop in a couple times per day and see a feed of popular stuff that is uniquely tailored to the communities of which you are a part. (That may be what Artifact, the algorithmic news-surfacing app from Instagram’s co-founders, wants to be, but it’s a far way off.) But, like Reddit, Discord is great for off-the-cuff conversation and community building. It may actually be better for particularly active communities, engendering more engagement among a more hardcore group and scaring off the casuals.
There’s also the defiantly anti-algorithmic Cohost, and I haven’t even mentioned Picnic, which I regret mentioning already. The point is that the answer to the question of “Where will all the fans go?” is: Somewhere, everywhere, and it doesn’t really matter. They will go somewhere because that’s what fans do on the internet: find each other. So long as those fans don’t become feral and start doxxing journalists, this is one of the internet’s highest callings. Fans will go everywhere because that’s the interesting part about the moment in time that we’re living through: a fundamental shift in the way people use the internet akin to the rise of blogging and social media in the aughts. There are a lot of options and different ways to be online, and that’s — I will say this as plainly as possible — cool. New architecture will rise in demand to this transformation, but in the meantime, the internet will feel less monolithic and centralized.
And that may be why it ultimately doesn’t matter that all the fans seem likely to scatter. It’s a net-positive. Just as deplatforming unwanted public figures fundamentally works to minimize their influence, so too does this mass-unplatforming decentralize the monolithic, overwhelming sense of A Discourse occurring that people feel the need to be a part of. That seems like a good thing, both for human mental health and, more specific to our concerns today, the quality of TV more largely. I know I said up top that I don’t think mediums can get, in aggregate, better or worse, but I also don’t particularly think social media or Twitter have been good for TV. The sense that Twitter was the real world, and that live opinions on the site equated to real-time approval polls, led to lots of toothless, feel-good TV. At least it felt that way to me. You could almost feel the presence of Reddit in the writers’ room on some of the later seasons of, say, Westworld and Game of Thrones — a yawning maw demanding Funko pops and in-jokes and reaction GIFs.
It’s not like we needed these platforms to have fan communities online. One of the original online communities was X-Philes, who can be credited with setting the tone of a lot of contemporary TV discourse, including fan theorizing and shipping. All of this happened in a remarkably uncentralized way. X-Philes gathered on usenet groups and listservs and hundreds of different fan sites. They mailed each other VHS copies of favorite episodes. The show’s writers learned to wink to this community, sneaking in sly fan references and taking cues from their fervent interest in its leads on how to play out their ambiguous romantic tension. But, as someone who was conscious, online, and really into The X-Files at the time, I can say this all happened completely outside of my perception. There was not a 1:1 equivalence of enjoying a TV show and being a part of its hive.
I don’t know for certain this is the world we are returning to. But I do think it’s a sneak peek at what may happen to fandoms as they splinter and go private. The crumbling of monolithic platforms can be good for fans, the internet, and TV at large: these platforms have had a monopoly on the attention economy. I’m deeply fascinated by the idea of more groups — like furries and males seeking fashion advice — making coordinated efforts to explore new platforms, as an act of necessity or as an act of resistance. That, to me, sounds like the internet getting better, not worse. As for the question of where everyone will go, the answer is that everyone will go somewhere, but we may be done with the era when it felt like everyone was at the same somewhere. And for that, I’m grateful. The internet could use a little breathing room.
Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Shaker Heights, Ohio. You can see other things he writes on Twitter.