Well, That Was Unexpected
Not so much a hot take, as a catalyzing event for disgorging a long-chewed rumination about what happens when Twitter irrevocably starts to suck.
Within minutes of waking up this morning, I was confronted with the news that weapons-grade shitposter Elon Musk had filed with the SEC an offer to just…up and buy Twitter. Which is a thing he can do, without feeling so much as a pinch. I don’t really have any remarks about Musk proper at this juncture, other than to note he is a chaos agent. It is unusual for me to issue hot takes, but let’s just call this event a catalyst for articulating some idle thoughts I’ve had for a while, and they should remain valid whether the deal consummates or not.
I do not have a contingency plan for what happens if Twitter becomes unusable. In order to even begin to contemplate such a thing, I have to consider the idiosyncratic role that Twitter has played in my life for the past 13✱ or so years.
✱ I actually made my account in 2008, but didn’t use it for a year.
I have been jacked into the internet for almost three decades—if I have not been mainlining it literally every day, then damn close to it. In recent years, I have become increasingly uneasy with the degree to which I rely on Twitter as my primary source of situational information and—let’s just call it mediated—social connection. Twitter is also the only one of the branded social media platforms that has actually performed for me in a professional setting, and perform it has: there is unambiguously a bright green line connecting my activity on Twitter to my bank account.
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.
Come for the situation awareness, stay for the mingling
Twitter ostensibly performs two functions. The first is a steady stream of what’s going on right now, with an additional injection of more evergreen stuff you might have missed. In that way it functions as passive intelligence gathering. How I did this prior to Twitter is by IRC, RSS (at least later on), and various Web forums over the years. IRC (which I still use, just not to hang out) has largely been displaced by Slack and Discord (plus an annoying long tail of proprietary chat platforms), and Web forums are still a thing, sort of. I am actually less concerned about replacing this capability than Twitter’s other essential feature.
This second feature is a little harder to articulate. What Twitter does really well is put you on equal footing with people you would otherwise never think to reach out to, and in other contexts, probably wouldn’t give you the time of day. These people put themselves out there to be interacted with, so you have implicit permission to interact with them. Furthermore, other people can witness your interactions. It’s a lot less formal or intrusive than an e-mail (which lacks the witnessing component), and can address far more people—authors and bystanders alike—than commenting on a blog (which kind of behaves like mailing a letter to a newspaper, insofar as the blogger solicited responses that other people can see). Twitter operates as a single global agora—or perhaps arena—with a certain idiosyncratic physics, that everybody—at least everybody who matters✱—participates in. I don’t know how you replicate that.
✱ For a certain definition of “matters”. There are lots of people in my life who aren’t active on Twitter and they matter a lot, but not in the way I’m thinking.
Elon Musk is only Twitter’s most recent—hypothetical, who knows, this may all amount to nothing—existential threat. The company seems to be hellbent on doing dumb shit to its product in its insatiable quest for ad dollars, so its neutralization as a source of signal is not a question of if, but of when. There was a season when an entity like Twitter was able to be born, and another wherein it was able to thrive, and all seasons come to an end. The near future of the Web looks decidedly Balkan, but without winter, there can be no spring.