Ultimately, what led to Parler’s rise is what destroyed it. Parler launched in September 2018, but it attracted mainstream attention only after the 2020 election, when it entered the spotlight as the de facto home of the #StopTheSteal movement, a co-mingling of QAnon conspiracy theorists, MAGA diehards, and Republican elected officials. By December, COO Jeffrey Wernick told me the site had 11 million registered users, roughly doubling its user base in just a few weeks. By the time the site went down a month later, it reportedly had 15 million users. In just more than two years, Parler went from a small, spammy Twitter clone to the site that helped foment an insurrection. Leading up to the riot, discussions of civil war and firing squads were common, and sometimes named specific targets for violence. “The comments on Parler were like comments I have never seen before, outside of looking at [the organizing of] ardent white-supremacist groups,” says Joan Donovan, the research director at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and a contributor to The Atlantic.
Parler is planning to return, but it will have a very hard time getting back online. For a fleeting few months, however, it was the broadest and most popular alternative social-media platform for conservatives, putting senators and Proud Boy leaders into one feed. The site was doing the not-so-subtle work of building a bridge between one internet and another, and in the process proved that there really is a demand for something like it. The mainstream and the radical fringe—the dissatisfied Facebook and Twitter users and those banned from them long ago—could, for the most part, coexist on one platform. And as Republicans become even more vehemently anti-Twitter and anti-Facebook, and mainstream conservatives hold the downfall of Parler up as a cautionary tale about mass censorship, the market for a new no-rules app is only expanding. Parler is gone, but another Parler will almost certainly replace it.
I visited Parler near-daily for three months before it shut down. From a functionality and design perspective, it was messy and disorienting. It looked like Twitter, except tweets were called “parleys,” and upvotes were called “echoes,” an apparent joke about echo chambers. Parler had no recommendation system to provide new members with a starter social circle or content to look at, so setting up a new account felt like wandering aimlessly around a state fair at which a not-insignificant percentage of the barkers were screaming non sequiturs about civil war.
Spam levels were high, and much of the content would be unappealing no matter who you were. I once came across a horrible photo of a bowl of soup, tagged, among other things, #cuteanimegirls, #trump2020, #patriots, and #Iran. The holiday season on Parler was both boring and alarming: In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the far-right activist Laura Loomer, who was banned from Twitter in 2018 and later handcuffed herself to the front door of the company’s New York headquarters in protest, promoted a #StopTheBias baseball cap from her merch store as a perfect holiday gift. Infowars, also banned from Twitter in 2018, encouraged last-minute shoppers to support its work by gifting Arrest Fauci & Gates! T-shirts. Tulsi Gabbard, the former Democratic representative of Hawaii, was posting about baking sourdough bread.