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Social media: What the platforms are for and how they work

By Clare Duffy, Sarah-Grace Mankarious and Tiffany Baker, CNN

(CNN) — For years, it felt like the social media landscape didn’t change much.

New apps came, new apps went, and the last one to really make a dent in the market was TikTok back in 2020.

But in the nine months since billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter, there has been a flurry of activity — multiple copycat apps have been released as users seek an alternative as the bird app changes under new leadership. The latest rival, Threads, was launched by Facebook-parent Meta and got a stunning start earlier this month.

CNN broke down some of the biggest and buzziest social media platforms — how they work, who they’re for and who runs them.

Facebook … when you’re looking for community (or used furniture)

With more than 2 billion daily users around the world, it’s tricky to describe the stereotypical Facebook user. Some come for Facebook Marketplace, which lets users buy and sell everything from vintage furniture to used cars. Many others come looking for community — whether that’s photo updates from their great aunt’s bridge night, or online groups dedicated to new parents or people navigating health challenges. But some of those communities have created serious issues, including groups that have spread vaccine misinformation or those that used the platform to help organize the January 6, 2021, US Capitol attack.

Instagram … when you’re looking to feel envious

What started as a photo-sharing app for friends has morphed into a place where the goal is apparently to try to make yourself look hotter, more fun and more well-traveled than everyone else. Whether you’re looking at “lifestyle” tips from influencers, sponsored fashion or home décor content or photos from your high school crush’s summer Italy trip — it’s all there. That culture can make the platform fun and inspirational, but it’s also raised concerns about the app’s impact on users’ mental health, especially for young girls.

Pinterest … when you’re looking for inspiration

Pinterest lets users easily search for and organize visual-heavy inspiration on a wide range of creative topics. Planting a garden? Planning a wedding? Renovating an old home by hand? This is the platform for you. Pinterest has also been rolling out features to let users shop directly from their feeds.

TikTok … when you’re looking for entertainment

TikTok is no longer just an app for dancing teens, but many people still scroll (and scroll, and scroll) the shortform video app when they’re looking to be entertained. The platform serves up zippy videos on everything from news and book recommendations to comedy and “get ready with me” style makeup tutorials, and sometimes content about conspiracy theories or solving crime.

Snapchat … when you’re looking to chat with friends

Snapchat is generally known as the platform young people use to exchange quick, real-time photos or messages with their friends or family. The photos and chats disappear by default, so the app feels more ephemeral than other platforms designed to help users cultivate an online persona (although some parents and lawmakers have raised concerns about the safety for young people of an app where content disappears). Snapchat is also known for popularizing face-altering filters.

YouTube… when you’re looking for something to watch

The original video-based social network, YouTube has over the years brought the internet hits like “Charlie Bit My Finger,” “Keyboard Cat” and “David After Dentist” and launched countless influencers’ careers. YouTube has in recent years worked to crack down on various forms of misinformation, although it recently rolled back a policy that had prohibited election denialism content. The platform is now trying to take on TikTok with its “YouTube Shorts” short video feature.

Nextdoor … when you’re looking for info about your neighborhood

If you want to gossip about the neighbor who refuses to cut their lawn, advertise a garage sale, seek help finding a lost dog or ask for tips on where to send your kids for summer camp, Nextdoor will be helpful. The platform lets users connect with other people in their immediate geographic area — but please, be nice.

Discord … when you’re looking to play the same game with your friends

This free text, voice and video chat service is known for its popularity with teens and video gamers. The platform, which feels sort of like an evolution from early AOL chat rooms, now hosts community forums for everything from union organizers and hiking groups to meme enthusiasts and people interested in the metaverse. But Discord has also received attention for its dark side, including issues like racist memes, sexually explicit content and, recently, being the site of a major leak of US classified documents.

Twitch … when you’re looking to watch someone else play your favorite games

Imagine YouTube, but where every video on the front page is a live feed of somebody playing a video game. Countless streamers compete for your loyalty on camera as they crack jokes, respond to their viewers’ text chats and try to pull off the most exciting plays. The platform, which has been known to host a politician or two, also promotes video streams devoted to music, art, sports, and cooking.

LinkedIn … when you’re looking to network

Long gone are the days when LinkedIn was merely a place to publicly post your resume and update it only once every few years when looking for a new job. Now, the platform is a place for users to post career updates, share news and, for some, to pontificate on their thoughts about remote working, how to raise venture capital or how to choose the right candidate to hire. Beware of the occasional CEO tearfully discussing their company’s layoffs.

Truth Social … when you’re looking for right-wing political commentary

This alternative, Twitter copycat platform backed by Donald Trump launched last year as a way for the former president to reach his fans after being suspended from mainstream platforms in the wake of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. The platform remains largely populated by Trump and his associates, as well as other far-right political and media figures. The app also features a range of spammy advertisers, hawking things like a “free guide” for “US Dollar Doomsday” or “purple liquid” that “burns body fat like crazy.”

Reddit … when you’re looking to learn about niche subjects

Billing itself as the “front page of the internet,” Reddit is one of the few remaining social platforms that still feels like a giant watercooler discussion. The platform offers up a veritable smorgasbord of topics users can either flit between casually — a cute chinchilla video here, a literary discussion there — or follow down a deep rabbit hole. Its communities are self-managed, relying on volunteer users to make forum-specific rules and to moderate content. Lately, however, Reddit has alienated some of its users with some unpopular business decisions.

Twitter (aka X) … when you’re looking for what’s going on (for now)

For years, Twitter was a central hub for real-time news. It was a place for ordinary people to read and engage in conversation with celebrities, business leaders and other newsmakers. But the platform has been upended since billionaire Elon Musk bought it last October. He has made a series of controversial changes and policy decisions — such as cuts to staff and restoring accounts of previously banned users, including some neo-Nazis — that have left many users and advertisers seeking alternative platforms. Most recently, Musk did away with Twitter’s iconic bird logo and replaced it with “X” branding.

Threads … when you’re looking for musings from your favorite influencers, celebs and journalists

The latest Twitter competitor, Threads, was launched by Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta. The platform looks a lot like Twitter, with a feed of largely text-based posts — in addition to photos and videos — where people can have real-time conversations. The app attracted a stunning 100 million signups within a week of its launch, although usage has slowed somewhat since. But unlike Twitter, Threads says it doesn’t plan to lean heavily into news content and an influx of Instagram influencers has given it a tamer vibe.

Bluesky Social … when you’re looking for an alternative to Twitter

This Twitter copycat app, backed by Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, calls itself a site for “microblogging.” It looks nearly identical to Twitter, albeit without key features like hashtags and direct messages. But the app runs on a decentralized network, providing users with more control over how the service is run, data is stored and content is moderated. The app is invite-only, so its audience and feed remain limited, but it gained early traction from public figures looking to spend less time on Twitter, including Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and model Chrissy Teigen.

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