Over the past two weeks, users of a certain social media platform have had to ask ourselves what a world without Twitter might look like. This is, of course, due to the purchase of the company by the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, an event that seemingly no one wanted, least of all Musk himself. Since being handed the proverbial keys, the self-described “free speech absolutist” has laid off roughly half of Twitter’s staff, announced that those who wish to be “verified” must pay $20 per month to add a blue check next to their name (then backtracked to $8 after Stephen King bullied him about it), declared that “comedy is now legal on Twitter,” then proceeded to ban multiple parody accounts making fun of him, and endorsed the Republican Party in the US midterm elections under the guise of “independent thinking.”
People who spend a great deal of time on Twitter now have what may seem like a binary choice: Stay or go. Some of those people view this decision as one of meaningful political resistance, tweeting melodramatic statements like “We need to stop ceding ground. Stay,” or worse, “Hold your ground like a Ukrainian.” Others are quietly bowing out, having presumably decided that the idea of Twitter becoming even worse than it already is is too much to bear. They may flee to greener pastures like the decentralized (read: confusing) platform Mastodon or the walled gardens of the newsletter market. But the thing about having a uniquely chaotic boy-king in charge of Twitter is that nobody really knows what’s going to happen to it.
If you're looking for the Jeph Jacques tweets that got him kicked off Twitter baby you know I screenshotted all of them pic.twitter.com/eXk3RR7G2t— Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes (@exclamate_) November 7, 2022
That hasn’t stopped us from making predictions, though, and the predictions are, predictably, bad. Because Musk now must court the advertisers who make up Twitter’s biggest revenue source — advertisers who are already put off by his flirtation with alt-right talking points and general tumultuousness — users are expecting a major uptick in the amount of paid advertisements they’ll see. Even those who pay the $8 per month for Twitter Blue won’t even be granted an ad-free experience (just … fewer?), and they’ll also supposedly get priority in the search function and in replies to tweets.
“It’s going to really distort the functionality of Twitter, and the good things it can do — being a good RSS feed, and even a decent search engine — are very likely going to disappear as Twitter becomes an advertising tool that rewards people who automate their posts, and those who are so addicted to amplifying Elon’s posts to ‘own the libs,’” predicts Hussein Kesvani, a London-based writer, podcaster, and internet culture commentator. “Short term, we’ll stick around to see what happens, but I imagine that we’ll see a broader exodus, not for political reasons but because the site just isn’t really useful.”
I talk to a lot of professional and aspiring content creators about their frustrations with Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, where a large and very visible subset of the population has been making a living for the past decade-plus. The tension between superusers and their tech overlords has always been fraught, with every decision a triangular push and pull between regular users, companies and their shareholders, and creators whose incomes depend on getting seen by the most number of people.
People don’t tend to talk about Twitter in the same way. Perhaps that’s because it’s a text-first platform and people don’t develop the same kinds of deeply intimate parasocial relationships they do elsewhere, or because it’s so closely entwined with the sort of icky trifecta of politics, media, and celebrity (although less so these days). Perhaps it’s because people generally don’t make money directly from Twitter, instead using it as a funnel to more lucrative platforms. Saying you love Twitter is a little bit embarrassing; it’s like saying you’re a “news junkie” or a frequent poster on a really mean subreddit.
Still, there are plenty of people who rely on Twitter for work, for exposure, for pleasure, for passion. In October, book publisher and editor Michael Damian Thomas tweeted that “the death of Twitter would decimate the science fiction and fantasy short story ecosystem,” arguing that the already niche, thin-margin industry would struggle to reach readers where they are. “This is where folks discover the ways to financially support the magazines (Patreon, subscriptions, crowdfunding).” Sex workers, who are constantly being booted off of platforms that allow them to work safely, also use Twitter — one of the few major networks that allow nudity and porn — for the same purpose.
“I imagine if you’re a big outlet with loyal readers, losing Twitter won’t be that significant, but if you’re freelancing, if you’re a podcaster, or a content creator, losing access to that distribution network could very well impact your income and the growth of your output,” says Kesvani. “I imagine the days of ‘exposure is enough’ will be well and truly over, and a lot of creators will be rethinking their financial relationship with the platforms they use to publish on.” What’s most disquieting about this shift is that we may never know what happened to the people we used to follow on Twitter, unless they just happen to show up on another timeline.
“Twitter made us better,” argued University of Pennsylvania professor Sarah J. Jackson in the New York Times, as part of a 2010s decade retrospective. Despite it having long been fashionable for its users to complain about it being a “cesspit” or a “hellhole,” Jackson points to the progressive political wins and how it fundamentally changed whose voices got heard, allowing Black people, queer people, and sexual assault survivors to start and spread movements farther than ever thought possible through campaigns from #OscarsSoWhite to #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.
I tend to agree that the evil stuff — the harassment, the conspiratorial thinking, the hate speech, Gamergate, etc. — is a side effect of what happens when you put millions of people in the same digital space and fail to properly moderate them. But Ryan Broderick, the writer of the internet culture newsletter Garbage Day, argues that this is the Stockholm syndrome talking. “There is a very weird mindset that Twitter power users have where they assume every other website is just as bad. It’s not!” he told me. “I promise you there are lots of people having good experiences online. There are Discords and Twitch chats and DM groups and subreddits where people are having really meaningful and positive experiences.”
being on Twitter right now is like playing the violin on the titanic except we are also making fun of the iceberg and the iceberg is getting genuinely mad— ✨️Lauren Dombrowski ☠️ (@callmekitto) November 6, 2022
What I think people are truly scared of is something more existential than “where will I get my news now?” The real questions involve how we keep up with the people we only know from Twitter, where we go when we have the world’s most inconsequential thought and suddenly feel the need to shout it into the void. Discords and Twitch chats are disparate and walled off, decentralized and often byzantine. They preserve their culture by virtue of this ambient gatekeeping; it’s much harder to end up on “the wrong side of Discord” unless you went looking for it.
Twitter’s disorderly, centralized feed offers the opposite experience, one where everyone is having their own conversations at the same time, in front of each other. It’s extremely difficult to imagine any new social network being able to replicate that effect, not least because it requires a lot of different kinds of people flocking to a single platform as opposed to the niche, often single-purpose social networks attracting new users (BeReal, Gas, any one of the alt-right Twitter alternatives that billionaires keep pouring money into). This future vision of the internet could be a better one: self-selecting communities vibing on their own terms, in their own spaces, less worried that a greedy, boorish, grotesquely rich man could send it all crashing down with a single post. Who knows, maybe we’ll even enjoy ourselves.
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