Or: Who Moved My Cheese? Twitter Edition
We are now one week into Elon Musk’s consummation (he apparently likes consummating) of his acquisition of Twitter. As I write this, I have lost about 1% of my followers from the flounce-fest that was universally predicted to ensue. This is not a newsletter about Elon Musk, a person I find profoundly uninteresting. Nor is it exactly about Twitter, although I suppose it necessarily has to be a little bit about both.
I will reiterate that Twitter has been an unexpectedly powerful resource over the last decade and a half. I say “unexpectedly” because if you had told 2008-me this, I would not have believed you. For me, however (and I would like to underscore for me), its utility started to ebb—in retrospect—sometime around the beginning of the Trumpocalypse, which also coincides with the introduction of the algorithmic timeline. I have nevertheless not made plans to desert, albeit how long I remain is contingent on how acutely immiserating Elon Musk makes the experience.
À propos Twitter, here is what I wrote in April, when this matter was fresh:
The question, then, that has been gnawing at me since the beginning of the Trumpocalypse and subsequent parade of increasingly goofy product design decisions, is what do I do if Twitter ceases to function?
Twitter is a property that works in practice but not in theory. It’s a dumb idea with a half-assed implementation. And yet, losing it would be like giving myself a lobotomy. (A highly dissonant admission, to be sure.) I would be thrust into the information milieu of the late 2000s, except that world doesn’t exist anymore.
As for the man of the hour, if you want takes, there are enough already out in the wild. I think Venkat Rao got it right about the social dynamics of the situation. Other commentators have remarked that he significantly overpaid and is on the hook for a billion dollars a year in interest payments, and that this will drive a lot of his behaviour. Alex Stamos (and no doubt others, independently) pointed out that Tesla shareholders have legitimate grounds to be pissed about this situation, because this brain genius, whose personal wealth is primarily staked in Tesla stock, has bought himself into a geopolitical chew toy, and opened himself up to massive exposure by for instance the Chinese, who could wipe out a quarter of Tesla’s revenue with the flick of a pen. This is to say nothing of, oh, I don’t know, the US government. And then there are all the reports about him firing everybody who has a clue and alienating everybody else while trying to screw the rank and file out of the stock payout he owes them. I’m inclined to agree with others that it’ll be six months before Twitter is sold for scrap in a private equity fire sale, or repossessed by a bank.
Actually, given the performance of the last week, I’m now thinking six months is exceedingly generous. The only way Musk could turn this around is if he installed a competent CEO and walked away; but from here it looks like he’s torched all of Twitter’s goodwill overnight.
Twitter right now feels like the Trumpocalypse all over again: somebody you would rather ignore, but you can’t, because he is making it so you have to pay attention to him. In Trump’s case it was simply the standing threat of global thermonuclear war. In Musk’s case, he just bought the platform (a move I expect Trump would have made if he was actually rich) and insinuated himself into every conversation. Anyway, I feel like I’ve already spent too much attention on him, but I’ll make one more remark: it occurred to me, while I was out for a walk, that he’s popular with exactly the kind of people who wish they too could coerce others into paying attention to them. I’m sure the takes will pile up for miles, but I don’t see much of a story here besides “rich guy does something dumb and we all pay for it”.
At least when Musk invariably lets Trump back on, the latter can now safely be ignored.
Instead I Want To Tell You What I’m Doing
Prior to Twitter, I got my up-to-the-second situational information mainly from IRC, supplemented by a rotating cast of one-off, bespoke private message boards, and finally, RSS. IRC, in principle, still exists (though my erstwhile hangouts have since been vacated), and so does the latest incarnation of said message board, albeit most of its denizens are busy with mortgages and kids. RSS is still around too, again in principle, but you have to look harder for it.
What Twitter did for me, in 2009 when I finally started paying attention to it, was change the scene from a sort of para-local one (to the extent that everybody, while geographically distributed, self-selected into the group by some sort of affinity) to a global one. I think about the anecdote about the grad students hanging out in some anonymous philosophy department, arguing over what some author or other meant about some point, when somebody suddenly says: “You know, this guy’s still alive, we could just ask him.” Twitter over the years has an analogous effect on me: the actual people who actually do the things are just available for you to talk to—at least if you can get their attention. Obviously you dont need Twitter for that per se; what I’m saying is Twitter really cemented this fact for me.
So while I don’t believe a RETVRN to the days before Twitter is viable, I do foresee a cranking up of the volume on RSS in particular, as well as dusting off my website(s). What I will miss about Twitter is going from thread—which costs asymptotically nothing to get started—to more substantial undertakings like these newsletters, or full-on articles, or something else. Part of the appeal of threading on Twitter though is people—especially people I’ve never encountered before—interacting with what I say in unexpected ways, testing the language and such. This environment may be replicable on something like Mastodon, but I’m skeptical. The quasi-private chats are still around in the form of Slack, Discord, Gitter, Zulip, and even still IRC.
Actually, I am more mad about the fact that nowadays I need half a dozen chat platforms to interact with different people semi-privately than I am about Elon torpedoing Twitter.
As for me, I’m still active on the following channels:
My work website, which is currently a stub
My miscellaneous newsletter (the one you’re currently reading)
The Nature of Software, my serialized probably-going-to-be-a-book (for paying subscribers 🔐)
My YouTube channel, for both prerecorded videos and live streams
Twitch for live streams, if you prefer it (I made a multiplexer to stream on both at once)
GitHub, for code
Oh, and apparently I’ve been on Mastodon for five years.
I am also seriously considering making something of my own. Twitter is (still) for me a major source of links to what’s going on in the world. I open probably a thousand links off Twitter a month. I am legitimately concerned, if Twitter becomes unusable, where I’m going to get my links from. This, however, is something that I have been thinking about for years, so it’s time to put that plan into action.
I am, after all, fundamentally a “data guy”, and there is plenty of data out there to be gathered. I want to create a space for information that’s like a beach where things wash up on it, and I can annotate the things and connect them together, and then I want to work out how other people can participate. I’ve been laying the bricks for something like this for a while, so now’s the time to finally do it.
Again, as for Twitter, as of this writing (though this position may change by the time you read it) I don’t really see in the short term why I should change my behaviour. I’ll probably ride that elevator all the way down, unless one of the no doubt many, many disgruntled ex-employees sabotages it, or it otherwise gets too awful too quickly.
You've laid out an excellent case for the value of Twitter, and you don't strike me as a "I'll pay to make you pay attention" type. Your points about the utility are exactly right. Now, if there was some way to insure the kind of link-collecting you discuss, except even better and easier, and ways to filter out not only the obvious crap like racism but the less-obvious crap like discussions of some rando's favorite sandwich--well. I'd pay for that, in part because it'd be impossible for me to roll that on my own, even if I had enough money. (If I did have enough money, I'd be reading Proust under a tree somewhere.)
Because the obvious thing is that Twitter is chockablock full of free riders. I don't know what kind of career Venkat would have without Twitter. If I were him, I'd budget at least $250 a month for what Twitter brings him. I mean, where else you gonna get it for a tenth that price? LinkedIn?
It's not about the grad students, it's about asking the guy 'cause he's still alive. I think that's profoundly valuable, just not for most people. So Musk bought a paper and he's gonna take it private. If this works at all, I think it'll look like an extremely exclusive family of newsletters at scale. No, I have no idea how that will work. But I'm not sure how else you'd go about fixing Twitter. Cause it's the sickest big tech company out there, and has been for a while, speaking in business terms. (Ideas eagerly welcomed--it's a fun thought experiment.)
Make sure I can find you again if you leave. Enjoying your work.