Of course, creativity often flourishes in digital platforms’ very specific formats. Vine’s six-second videos are perhaps the most famous example of innovation under extreme creative limits. In recent years, the quick technical uptake and endless experimentation of TikTok creators has shown that extraordinary things can be created with a relatively narrow set of features. And as for writing, maybe brevity really is key: Some research suggests we were all much better at Twitter in the 140-character days.
But constraints on the web today aren’t just about what our tools encourage us to do on a technical level—they’re also about what it’s like, more broadly, to use a platform. “On the old-school internet that I was on when I was a teenager, the constraints were the tools,” says DeVito. “Could you create a hit viral video in 1996? No, we did not have the technology and infrastructure to get that video distributed. For a one-minute video, you would spend two days uploading it, and nobody would have had the connection to download it. The systems didn’t afford that kind of expression.”
But today, she explains, technical constraints are joined by constraints around things like moderation and audience. If you post something, will the platform allow it to stay up? And if it stays up, will that content open you up to harassment from other users? She gives the example of trans creators, whose art depicting themselves or their friends is often a particular target of both platform moderation tools and harassment from other users. “That starts to feel like this much bigger constraint,” she says. “Because you’ve got all these tools to build things with, and you have a system telling you, ‘Your expression is not welcome here.’ That’s not necessarily what they’re trying to say, but that is what it feels like every time.”
Online content creation today is inextricably entwined with these social components. DeVito talks about trans creators locking accounts or retreating to private digital spaces to share their work in a safer environment, which echoes behavior seen in many communities across the web in recent years, as users move from from big free-for-all platforms like Tumblr and Twitter to closed ones like Discord, or even leave the online world entirely. To DeVito, the question of whether current internet users would know what to do with wide-open spaces almost seems beside the point: “I think if Gen Z needed to go back to the old-school tools, they’d figure them out in less than a day and improve on them,” she says. “They’re clever.” But the current spaces, she explains, are known quantities: Flawed but clearly defined, users collectively share how to safely navigate them. “In that scenario, it wouldn’t be that we don’t know how to create,” she says. “It would be that we don’t know how to protect ourselves.”
The current moment feels like an inflection point for digital platforms across the web—far beyond Twitter’s woes, there’s a sense that people feel boxed in, even as they’re unsure what better spaces for creating and communicating might look like. Watching the discussions on any potential Twitter replacement, it’s easy to see competing—and sometimes wholly conflicting—desires and needs. Compare, for example, those who want the smaller, more controlled conversations of decentralized spaces to the creators who’ve built careers on scaled-up, engagement-driven sites. The technical points of friction joining a Mastodon instance are insurmountable barriers to some—and a central draw for others. Content policies on other proposed Twitter alternatives might limit hate speech but also punish people talking openly about gender and sexuality. No platform will solve everyone’s problems—but right now, it often feels like our current platforms aren’t solving anyone’s problems.