I’m going to attempt the impossible and use his name only once in this piece, but as you may have heard, Elon Musk is in the process of buying Twitter. Musk is (fuck, sorry), among other things, not a very good person, and I don’t look forward to his reign at the website where I spend a significant amount of time any more than you do. But first I need the people who make up Twitter’s loudest contingent to admit something: that they do not hate Twitter, it is not a “hell site” or a “garbage fire,” and that, in fact, they want to kiss Twitter on the mouth.
Right now, a lot of important people are talking about how much Twitter sucks, how it has always sucked, and how it will suck even worse when its new owner succeeds at doing whatever he wants with it, which as we all know is going to be cloaked in some kind of moral crusade for free speech and will end up incentivizing the worst people in the world to be even more brazenly terrible. As Katie Notopoulos points out in her correct piece on why Twitter users actually deserve an evil overlord, there are good reasons to hate the platform: coordinated harassment campaigns, trolls, bots, doxxing, threats, the official Denny’s brand account, and perhaps worst of all, people who use a random tweet as a springboard to talk about their unrelated personal grievances.
Set all of those things aside for a moment, though, and think about who Twitter is really for, who spends the most time there, and what its main purpose is. Twitter is a platform of words, meaning that one of its most vocal demographics is writers. And writers are annoying.
It is extremely funny, for instance, that on basically every other social media platform, the most ardent users proudly call themselves “creators,” a term that evokes art and inventiveness and excitement. Some of them are even able to make money there, like real, life-altering money!
Writers, on the other hand, aside from not making money on Twitter, are also for the most part deeply ashamed of their use of it, referring to the platform regularly in exactly the same tone I am doing now, as a smelly, fetid swamp full of decomposing yet self-righteous bog people. Sure, some people are making money on Twitter, via tips or “Super Follows” or the many sex workers who have built livings off of its comparatively lax content restrictions. But the real capital is found in the zillions of mostly meaningless interactions on Twitter, which carry oversized weight in the minds of people involved in them. Which, of course, makes them even more fun to pay attention to.
Why else would the media be so obsessed with talking about and spending time on a platform that by most accounts is irrelevant to the vast majority of Americans? It’s because the media is full of writers, all of whom are obsessed with how they stack up against their friends and nemeses, and Twitter is the easiest way to keep score. Writers often joke that they hope to one day be so successful as to never have to log onto Twitter again, and some lucky few have certainly achieved that dream. They say they’re only there out of obligation or the sense that they’ll become irrelevant should they ever log off. But you can be at the top of your field, regarded as an expert, a visionary, a Correct Opinion Haver, making hundreds of thousands, if not millions — if not billions! — of dollars, and you still will be poisoned by the part of the human condition that craves tiny spurts of attention and immediate rewards for the least possible effort. You can pontificate that Twitter is rotting our brains and you might be correct, but when has the knowledge that something is bad for us ever prevented human beings from doing it anyway?
There is something sanctimonious and condescending about a big writer guy tweeting about how bad the platform is when they have gained so much influence and power from using it; it is not dissimilar from the rash of “regreditorials” from men who got really, really rich building tech companies and then realized that Facebook and Google are actually pretty bad for everyone but themselves.
Here is where I will bravely admit that I sometimes enjoy being on Twitter. I’ve made actual friends there, and I owe probably a decent chunk of my career to having a little bit of a Twitter following. It’s not always good; I don’t love the anxious feeling I get when I’m scrolling simply because it is something to do that is not the thing I should be doing, but that is less Twitter’s fault than my own inability to manage my time. I don’t like when people are being mean or scoldy in a way that goes beyond merely annoying and into “these feelings should maybe be dealt with in private.” And I don’t like that Twitter makes people feel as though if they’re not saying the loudest, most extreme version of the thing they are trying to say, then they’re not saying anything at all.
Maybe you’re not on Twitter and this sounds incredibly dramatic. Even so, if you have used the internet at all you have participated in and benefited from the platform’s influence, either the actually important parts (many a grassroots social movement, for one) or the still-pretty-important parts (iconic shitposts, inventive joke formats). Without Twitter, we wouldn’t have Black Twitter or Weird Twitter or all the other forms of delightful internet-born humor that have made their way into mainstream culture. Like all social platforms, Twitter is a double-edged sword: By shoving millions of people into a single virtual room, the mechanisms by which progressive change can flourish work just as well for the movements opposing it. I will spare you the lecture on echo chambers and extremist rabbit holes because I’d argue that what these common critiques often miss is that the problem of Twitter is less that it’s an ad-supported, algorithmic feed and more that it’s simply too big for any one company to manage. The same is even more true for Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Google, Apple, and most of the platforms that are now so integral to American life that losing or breaking up one of them is almost unfathomable.
Perhaps its new leader will make the site so unpleasant as to be unusable for normal people. That would be a really, really weird thing to witness. Consider the lost clout! Consider the meltdowns! But I think it would take a great deal of mismanagement for that to happen. After all, how could anyone think that creating a message board made up of more than 200 million writers too ugly to be of much interest on Instagram or too sexy for its puritanical content restrictions would yield results that were anything less than what Twitter is: chaotic, fun, evil, disgusting, delightfully sinister, a billion other things. How could it have been any different? And how could we ever look away?
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