In a surprising turn of events this week, the social media giant formerly known as Twitter bid adieu to one of its most beloved features, leaving users across the globe disheartened. The “Circles” feature, an oasis of selective sharing and trusted connections, has met its demise. While this change may have global ramifications, for young South African millennials, it signals a loss of an intimate space for candid, unfiltered expression.
Circles was a unique platform within Twitter, allowing users to post content exclusively for a handpicked group of up to 150 individuals. In a digital age rife with oversharing, Circles provided a safe haven where users could be themselves without fear of personal or professional repercussions. The ability to confide in this selective group of followers granted a sense of passive intimacy, offering an avenue to communicate true feelings without imposing on others.
The notion of these private digital diaries harks back to the era of LiveJournal and Myspace bulletins. Even before the advent of social media, internet denizens craved a space where they could share their most private thoughts with a trusted audience. While privacy breaches are not unheard of, the allure of such semi-private platforms lies in the telegraphing of genuine emotions without the burden of being perceived as an attention seeker.
Imagine receiving an extensive text message from a friend detailing a profound revelation from their therapist, challenging the very concept of shame as an emotion. Now, imagine receiving several such messages a week. It can be overwhelming. Many of us have that friend who compulsively feels the need to share their innermost thoughts with the world. Growing up in the digital age, writing in a personal diary doesn’t suffice. An audience is required.
As a now-famous New York Times essay turned meme suggests, “If we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”
That’s not to say that meaningful conversations with friends should be replaced by online sharing. However, there are moments when you simply want to post a few sentences into the digital ether, seeking validation, empathy, or even just a virtual shoulder to lean on.
The challenge lies in the current state of the internet, where even the most innocuous posts can be taken out of context and go viral. No one desires to become the next infamous internet sensation, as was the case with “Bean Dad” or the woman criticized for enjoying morning coffee in her garden.
With the demise of Circles, social media users find themselves bereft of spaces to share honest thoughts and updates with people they genuinely trust. Perhaps you want to vent about your job without risking your employer discovering your posts. Maybe you’re going through relationship woes, but you’d rather not let your ex know about your struggles. Or it could be as simple as not wanting to share your life’s intimate details with a broad audience, which, in the digital age, could range from your uncle to a college roommate’s friend whom you’ve met only twice.
Before Instagram introduced the Close Friends feature in 2018, users had to resort to “alt Twitters” and “finstas” to cater to this desire for selective sharing. Close Friends was an instant hit as it streamlined the process, removing the awkward friction of persuading people to follow your secondary, private account. No longer did users have to make public announcements about their private accounts or debate whether doing so negated the purpose of having one. Close Friends, along with Circles, simplified this by enabling users to add only the people they truly trusted.
While Twitter took a few years to catch up, Circles brought a unique dimension to diaristic sharing. Unlike Instagram stories, which require the posting of images that often disappear within 24 hours, Circles allowed for more textual and intimate sharing. However, this proximity was a double-edged sword. It sometimes proved challenging to switch between the highly curated, influencer-centric Instagram feed and Close Friends stories, where users shared lengthy, personal reflections over mere selfies.
Several attempts have been made to bridge the gap. Apps like BeReal aimed to encourage authenticity among a smaller circle of friends. However, BeReal’s format, in its purest sense, constrained users to post a single daily photo within a specific two-minute window. While the mundanity of BeReal offered a unique perspective, the format limited users’ ability to share in-depth thoughts or updates.
Another app, Squad, attempted to address this need by enabling users to form groups of up to 12 friends, called “squads,” where they could share voice messages throughout the day. Nevertheless, in a world saturated with apps, it’s a formidable challenge for a startup to break through and gain a substantial user base, especially when larger corporations like Meta and TikTok can quickly replicate their features.
So, where does this leave us? Do we resort to posting our deepest confessions on LinkedIn as some form of postmodern irony? Perhaps we return to platforms like Tumblr, notorious for sharing secrets with thousands of strangers rather than trusted friends. Or, is it possible that we need to resist the urge to share every fleeting thought online?
The truth is, we’ve come too far to retreat from the digital world. The need for genuine, selective sharing persists. South African millennials, like their global counterparts, seek a platform where they can be authentically themselves without the fear of oversharing or becoming an unwitting internet sensation.
As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of social media, the loss of Circles reminds us of the delicate balance between maintaining online privacy and cultivating intimate connections in the digital age. It remains to be seen if a platform will rise to the occasion and provide the diaristic sharing experience that many yearn for, but for now, users are left longing for the return of a digital sanctuary where they can be known by a select audience.