When X’s Circles feature shut down this week, the app formerly known as Twitter turned its back on the best product it’s shipped since the Quote Tweet. Like an Instagram Close Friends story, Circles allowed users to post to an exclusive, hand-picked group of up to 150 people, where they could be themselves without worrying about the personal or professional consequences.
Now that Circles has been inexplicably axed, the chronically oversharing, young millennials among us are mourning its demise. Since the era of LiveJournal and Myspace bulletins, internet folks have craved a place where they could share their most private thoughts with an audience of people they trust. Though there are countless horror stories of supposedly private blogs leaking into the public, these public diaries — later replaced by “finstas” and “alt accounts” — help us develop a passive intimacy with the people in our lives. It’s a way to telegraph how you really feel, but in a way that makes you feel less annoying or burdensome to your friends, since they can opt in or out of engaging with you.
Put it this way. If you receive a super long text from a friend about something their therapist told them that made them reconsider the value of shame as an emotion or whatever, it might be a little overwhelming, especially if you’re getting like, five of these texts a week. The problem is, many of us are this friend: the person who has so many feelings that they compulsively need to share with the world. But when you’ve grown up on the internet, just writing in a diary doesn’t help. We need an audience. As a 10-year-old New York Times essay-turned-meme tells us, “If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”
This isn’t to say that we can’t just have normal relationships with our loved ones where we talk about our feelings in healthy, reciprocal ways. But sometimes you don’t need to have a real conversation; you just need to post a few sentences into the ether, only now, the ether is a minefield where anything you post can be taken out of context and go viral, making you the main character of the internet for the day. No one wants to be the next Bean Dad, or the woman who got lambasted for saying she likes drinking coffee in her garden with her husband in the morning.
Now, social media users are bereft of spaces where they can share honest thoughts and updates with people they genuinely trust. Maybe you want to complain about your job, but you don’t want to risk your employer seeing your posts, or maybe you want to talk about your dating woes, but you don’t want your ex to know how much you’re struggling. Maybe you just don’t want to share that many details about your life with a wide audience, which can somehow include both your uncle and your college roommate’s friend who you met twice. So, until the debut of the Instagram Close Friends story in 2018, we had to hack together “alt Twitters” and “finstas” to satisfy our desire to be known by a select audience.
Close Friends was such a hit because it erased the extremely awkward friction of getting people to follow your second account. Do you post publicly that you have a private account and ask people to follow you, or does telling people you have a finsta defeat the purpose of having one? What happens if someone requests to follow you, but you don’t want to let them in? Close Friends and Circles solved this — you could avoid the whole mess entirely by just adding the people you wanted to add.
Though it took Twitter about four years to catch up, Circles was brilliant because it’s even more diaristic than an Instagram story, which requires you to post a picture — often of yourself — which goes away within 24 hours (a blessing or an annoyance depending on your perspective). Perhaps part of the thrill of the Close Friends story (or the “finsta,” a whole separate account) is that it’s so antithetical to the highly curated, influencer-covered Instagram grounds. But this proximity is a double-edged sword — for me, at least, I find it difficult to pivot between my quasi-professional Instagram and my Close Friends stories, where I try to fit walls of text onto a mediocre selfie.
BeReal saw this hole in the social media market and set out to make an app that encourages people to be more authentic with a smaller, more immediate circle of friends. Unfortunately, BeReal doesn’t scratch this same itch. The app — in its purest form — prompts you to post a photo once per day within a specific two-minute window. If you’re lucky, the BeReal notification might go off while you’re doing something interesting, but for the most part, people post themselves at their work desks at 1 P.M. on a Wednesday, or walking their dog or something. The mundanity of BeReal is refreshing in its own right, but I’m not going to caption a photo of myself cooking dinner with a reflection about how my new medication regimen is going (literally, the caption sizes on BeReal aren’t that long).
One app that I covered over two years ago, Squad, also sought to fill this void. The app invited people to assemble groups of up to 12 friends (“squads”), where they could share voice message updates throughout the day. Unfortunately, no matter how compelling a product is, it’s rare for a startup to break through our collective malaise over downloading yet another app (unless if you’re BeReal, which is becoming less popular anyway). And startups are disincentivized to build compelling social products because there’s a high probability that even if they succeed, they’ll just get copied by Meta or TikTok.
So where does this leave us? Do we post our deepest confessions on LinkedIn in some sort of postmodern act of irony? Do we return to Tumblr, a platform that is known more for posting your secrets to thousands of strangers, rather than your close, real-life friends? Or do we simply learn to resist the urge to share our each and every thought in some sort of online forum? We’re too far gone for that.