How We're Bringing Back the 'Social' Part of Social Media

People are finding these new online spaces to fill in the gaps from bigger platforms like Instagram and Twitter.
Katelyn Chedraoui
8 min read
Getty Image/ Zooey Liao/ CNET
notion image
Gabbie Romano is a top contributor to the "Bagels Who Discuss" Facebook Group, an inclusive place for folks in the Chapel Hill-Durham area in North Carolina. That means Romano is one of the most active members of the private group, sharing posts and commenting on others to provide advice, recommendations and support, which is the group's purpose. But she wasn't always so active in Facebook Groups like Bagels.
Over the past few years, Romano noticed some changes while using other social media outlets, specifically Instagram. Comments under creators' posts seemed meaner and more critical than before, and it was getting hard to be around. She found herself comparing herself to others and going down rabbit holes, which wasn't good for her mental health.
"I end up in a mindless scroll spiral that never feels good but is hard to get out of," she said.
That's what led Romano to delete her Instagram app. Now, she primarily uses Facebook Groups, which is where we connected. She also uses subreddits, where she finds people with similar interests as hers, including local foodie and hiking groups as well as an interior design "ask anything" group.
Romano's experience is just one example of many, as some social media users have migrated to and adopted new, smaller spaces online. I've noticed this trend in my own life and work as a social media reporter. So, I explored how big this trend is, how it's manifesting and whether these small spaces are here to stay by talking to some experts.

What are small social media platforms?

Small social media groups are exactly what they sound like -- spaces online meant to connect people in smaller groups, instead of pushing them to explore content from all over. They're fairly easy to find, too. Subreddits and Facebook Groups are two common examples of smaller spaces on bigger platforms. These groups are designated corners within larger platforms that are meant to encourage smaller pools of users to post, share and connect. It can be easier to join spaces like these when you're already on the platform -- there's no need to create a new account.
Discord is a great example of this pattern in action. It started as a voice chat service for gamers but evolved into a big platform that hosts 19 million servers and 150 million monthly active users. According to a Discord spokesperson, 80% of communications on the platform are in smaller group servers. Instead of being a virtual global town square, Discord is a large platform that gives its users the ability to connect more one-on-one by joining specific community servers, like Manchester City football superfans. Users can also create their own server for their friends and take advantage of the group chat functionality to get around international texting fees and Apple's blue versus Android's green bubble debacle.
Independent, topic-specific platforms are also becoming more popular. For film fans, Letterboxd exploded in popularity during the pandemic and has steadily grown its user base since then. It has 10 million users today, up from 4.1 million in 2021 and 1.8 million in 2020, according to The Washington Post. The fan fiction platform Archive of Our Own -- AO3 -- has over 11 million stories, uniting global audiences around specific interests, whether that's rewriting the ending of Game of Thrones or authoring new non-canon stories for other fandoms.
Invite-only apps like Lapse, which was the No. 1 free app in the Apple App Store for several months in 2023, encourage you to connect with a smaller group of your friends. Even apps like Nextdoor, which connects neighbors in the same geographic area, are becoming more common. Nextdoor has 88 million neighbors in 330,000 neighborhoods -- and more importantly, 75% of its users report that the platform helps them feel more connected to their community.
While these apps have many users, those folks are finding smaller ecosystems within the larger whole. On Letterboxd, users connect with smaller groups through favorite movies and by leaving reviews or following friends and favorite film critics. On AO3, it's by fandom and category or tags on stories, with a niche category to suit everyone. On Lapse and Nextdoor, those spaces are specifically designed for people to connect with the people already in their lives.

Why people are using small social platforms

There are a lot of reasons why people might leave big platforms -- mental health for one. There's also the impact of social media sites on our productivity and attention spans, and a desire to avoid doomscrolling. There are also plenty of reasons why someone might join a smaller online community, including the appeal of exclusivity, avoiding ads and taking a break from news cycles. But the main motivation that came up over and over was a desire for community.
Originally, platforms like Facebook were supposed to build and host communities. But that's not what they are today.
"A lot of the social platforms right now are really prioritizing discovery and entertainment," said Rachel Karten, social media marketing expert and creator of the Link In Bio newsletter. Leaning into entertainment content helps big platforms keep users engaged and revenue flowing, Karten explained. But people are still "...seeking out places where they can find community."
That's where niche online communities pop up -- whether they're in a pocket of space on a larger platform or a dedicated smaller space. In these small communities, people are united under a shared goal, interest, location or other commonality. In many instances, the people in these rooms also share the same values and beliefs. Those build the norms in a small space, said Ethan Zuckerman, researcher and professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Because the group, rather than the overarching platform, decides what is and isn't acceptable behavior, it can open the group up to sharing on a deeper level. "Those spaces can be really valuable for people to explore sensitive topics and find support from different people," said Zuckerman. Groups can also decide to be more stringent with their community guidelines compared to those of individual platforms.
Take a mental health and substance abuse support group, for example. The people in those groups may want everyone in the space to be at least similarly aligned with their views. They also might find a smaller space less intimidating to share, especially if the group emphasizes the importance of being respectful, supportive and compassionate. This all can build a sense of safety and security that's much harder to find on bigger platforms, if it exists at all.
"[People] want to be in places where they have trust in the cultural dynamics of the space that they're in. They just don't want to be on the receiving end of an algorithm," said Deepti Doshi, co-director of New_ Public, a community-driven research laboratory focused on digital public infrastructure.
Beyond just individual people seeking community, these smaller spaces can bring folks together on a societal level. One example Doshi calls out is how in the wake of thousands of local newspapers closing, these digital spaces can be good alternatives to traditional news outlets for disseminating local news and information. "Without these local institutions stepping into this role of weaving our [societal] fabric together, we need to reinvent…digital spaces are sprouting up to fill this gap," she said.

Small online spaces aren't perfect

Not all small spaces are healthy, though. These niche communities aren't immune to issues that bigger platforms face, particularly when it comes to creating echo chambers and normalizing potentially dangerous ideas, whether that's misinformation or conspiracy theories.
The very thing that can draw someone to a small online community is what can make it dangerous. "Their problem is homophily -- they end up with a lot of people who feel the same way, think the same way. They're not as good for bridging or for sharing ideas across boundaries," Zuckerman warns.
And that matters, especially as election season heats up and social media platforms gear up in kind. For example, Instagram recently changed all users' settings to automatically limit political content from users' feeds. Even if small spaces wanted to do something like that, they don't have the same kind of broad oversight and technical firepower that big platforms do.
Zuckerman wrote in an op-ed earlier this year that the concern with small spaces is that they could be too insulated from opposing points of view or outside scrutiny. When there's no pushback, extreme points of view -- especially political ones -- can be normalized and draw people down into rabbit holes that are hard to escape.
Doshi echoed these concerns, pointing out that these small platforms aren't really built with the intention of helping people create connections across differences. "If we want to take advantage of this trend of people moving into these small spaces, we need to complement that with a movement to ensure that these small spaces are actually healthy."
In this fight, group administrators or moderators will be vital. Bigger platforms have entire teams dedicated to community management and safety, but in smaller online spaces, those responsibilities fall to one or a few admins or mods. Beyond setting up the group's online infrastructure, creating the group's community guidelines and monitoring what is being shared, they're also tasked with settling disagreements and eking out punishments when users break the group's rules. As such, Doshi points out that giving the people in these roles the necessary resources and support is one way to keep these small online spaces healthy. Currently, most of the folks in these roles do this on a volunteer basis -- meaning they're never paid for their work, time and emotional labor, which can be significant.

What does this mean for the future of social?

Ultimately, it's unlikely that there will be a mass exodus from these big platforms. Even after X's (formerly Twitter) tumultuous time after Elon Musk bought it in 2022, only 18% of its US users left the platform a year later, according to Variety. That's millions of people, but still less than a fifth of all US users.
Instead, what's more likely to happen is people will continue to seek and carve out smaller corners of the internet for their friends and find new groups bonded over common, niche interests, whether they're geographically local or made up of a small but global community.
As people continue adopting or migrating to smaller, more community-driven online spaces, we should pivot to see these spaces as equally important in our lives as big platforms are, even as their purposes evolve. As Karten put it, TikTok might become the place where things happen, and Discord will be where we go to talk about it. Both are important to our online social ecosystem.
And as Zuckerman put it, "If we're going to legislate this stuff, it's really important that we actually understand what we're legislating. And the truth is, just looking at social media as all these people united by Twitter under the thumb of Elon Musk, that's just not an accurate picture of social media that people are encountering."
Taking this holistic view of our online social lives can certainly help alleviate fears and concerns as legal challenges to big platforms like TikTok continue. You don't have to worry as much if one platform goes away if you have others to rely on. What's more important is the underlying motivation for why people are seeking out these small places -- and why they aren't currently finding what they need on Instagram, Twitter and other big platforms.
"[Main platforms] have sort of lost their way when it comes to community, and many of these platforms were created, literally, with community in mind," said Karten. "So can any of these platforms find their way back? If they don't, then I think it's amazing that we now have alternatives, like Discord and Substack, to find community."