I never wanted to be on Twitter in the first place. Back in 2007 I signed up and tried it for about five minutes, then promptly forgot about it. In 2008, however, an old friend of mine convinced me to give it another shot. I created a new account – @ImTheQ – which has been a large part of my online identity ever since.
During the last fourteen years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Twitter. When Obama was elected in 2008, aided in large part by leveraging social media, and the Arab Spring took off in 2010, I truly believed that this is what we old-school webheads had been hoping for: a free and open channel for every human (with internet connectivity) on the planet, to be able to communicate, organize and respond to events as they unfolded. Power to the people – online and off! Those were heady times.
Millions of individuals around the world began flocking to Twitter, and I made some amazing friends in those years. Organic topical trends, live-tweeting appointment television, and opportunities to meet people with no agenda except being part of a chaotic, cacophonous, global conversation were the culture.
We should have known that there was trouble brewing, but we were all so in love with our collective and the potential of unprecedented connectivity that we overlooked the repercussions of what would become what it is today.
So what happened? Here’s a short list of things I think contributed to Twitter becoming a hellscape:
The success of the 2008 Obama digital campaign was a double-edged sword. Suddenly, for-profit, non-profit, criminal and political orgs of all kinds grasped the potential of using a porous, global medium that is hardwired for marketing to accomplish their own goals – benign, or not. Twitter became a machine, with ‘influence’ depending on the size of your following and the amount of outrage you could provoke in them for any cause or purpose.
In an attempt to attract advertisers, Twitter began tweaking algorithms and prioritizing content for us. This ended up creating an imbalance where millions of voices were ignored for the loudest, most aggressive, powerful, and/or wealthy.
American media and journalism moved onto the platform almost ubiquitously, in large part to combat the erosion of their readership (as platforms began to enhance their UIs to keep people on them for as long as possible), and loss of ad revenues (because of the digital advertising model), turning it into a broadcasting platform that was about generating clicks and capturing attention. No longer was it about the people – it became about content and the attention economy.
Twitter at some point decided that collaborating with law enforcement and government agencies around the world was a good idea, thus destroying any credence they had as being a tool of the people.
By the time Donald Trump came around, aided and abetted by an army of Russian troll farms entrenched in the soil of the ways of state propaganda, we were ripe for abuse on a grand scale.
The great downward spiral of a once hopeful platform can’t be attributed to any one person or group of people. Everyone played their part. Twitter is addictive, built for speed, and frictionless. It keeps you there, doom-scrolling day and night. The culture prizes vitriol, snark and dogma. All of this happened gradually until it was no longer possible to engage in anything close to a conversation. Most of my time there at the end was retweeting content and delivering one-liners.
Listen. Some good things happened on Twitter. Good things happen all over the world within shitty systems. But I posit that the good that came from Twitter was *incidental* to people using it. People find a way, always. The Black Lives Matter initiative and #MeToo are a testament to the desire of people to come together around things that matter to them.
But even after those few successes, Twitter itself reminds us that racism, sexism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, and classism are still in full effect. With each trending hashtag about a mass shooting or police brutality agains Black Americans, I ask myself, “What is actually changing?”
Journalists, activists, academics, political organizers and politicians – that is, our leaders – all effectively said, “Let’s become dependent on this platform created and run for profit by white gazillionaires as an essential part of our democractic and social initiatives even tho we have no input into how it’s run, who gets to be here, or how abuse gets addressed!” And then they wonder why fascism is gaining traction.
The truth is, Twitter is far from optimal for building community, organizing activists, and creating a solid network for accomplishing good things.
Which brings me to my final point:
Starting in the early 2000s, we all began adopting new technologies so fast that we didn’t have a chance to think through any of the implications. (I mean, some of us did, but we were largely ignored and told we were Chicken Littles). So, in short order we all got super dependent on these platforms and devices, super fast.
What we’re doing online now is largely a result of habits we unthinkingly adopted after rushing to the digital frontier and allowing a handful of wealthy, mostly white men to design and dictate to us what we were supposed to do out here.
I see people mourning Twitter since Elon Musk took over. I don’t think Musk is the problem. Just as Donald Trump wasn’t the problem. These men are the logical end result of a shitty system that was never actually designed to benefit everyone to begin with.
I’m heartened by the growing number of people who have taken this opportunity to rethink the very foundation of the social media they’re using. The mass exodus of thoughtful people from Twitter is not a destruction of our networks, it’s a CORRECTION. It’s millions of people saying, ‘we can do this better somewhere else…where we have more control.’ It’s a sign of our collective digital maturity.
I only hope that it’s not too late.
Anyway, stay safe out there, y’all. As for me, I’m off the Twitters indefinitely. I truly believe it’s the single biggest threat to democracy there is – and that’s saying something since Facebook is still in existence.
Just know this – and believe it: the value of these goddamn platforms was never in the platforms themselves. It was the people who met there and did good things with them – and often in spite of them.
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