I’ve noticed in the past week or so, I’ve lost a number of followers on Twitter. This isn’t all that surprising; in the wake of Elon Musk’s acquisition and ascent, people are leaving the platform in droves. That’s fine. I have no plans to leave in some showy, pompous exit. I just… don’t give a shit about the corporate direction of the company. It’s just another fucking company making increasingly self-interested decisions. Social media is a cesspool, and, yes, Musk’s influence and management decisions will probably dial up the more vile aspects of Twitter, but it’s always been, at any given point, a variation on that same cesspool you find anywhere else “on social” these days, where, N.B., most readers are still finding the journalists they end up following. At any rate, Twitter is where I’ve built my most engaged following. (I almost typed “folly” there.)
My more immediate reasoning for not getting the hell out of Dodge is that, whether the users are the product or not (and they are), my approach to Twitter has always been to cultivate my account as a) my own news wire service (inbound media) and b) my own publishing platform (outbound media). Twitter is very effective for those needs.
I look at each of my own tweets the same way I look at any feature I’m submitting to an editor. Twitter, to me, is an act of publishing. It’s very simple. Not to sit atop a high horse here, but I gather that this view isn’t shared across the platform (and maybe that’s the start of the problem). Twitter’s worst tendencies aren’t simply due to its corporate structure or its CEO’s whims; you see the most negative elements of Twitter come out in how other users themselves grasp the platform, in how human nature manifests in 280 characters or less. It’s easy to laugh at the idea of a journalism degree, but those four years gave me a nuanced, detail-rich foundation for how to approach publishing, for how to approach the concept of “audience.” This is not small potatoes, but now everyone and their uncle fancies themselves a publisher with an audience (though they wouldn’t say as much). Disregarding the ethics of journalism or even the emerging field of the ethics of goofball shitposting on an individual level can certainly end up harming the group. Musk has nothing to do with it.
To me, Twitter is a laboratory for the writerly voice. You’ve got constraints in character count, and you’ve got what tends to be a limited but engaged audience. You can really hone your skills as a writer! My stuff has mostly been a mix of earnest journalism, self-promotion (duh) and a stew of irony, satire, non sequitur and tongue-in-cheek schadenfreude with a chip on my shoulder for good measure (hey, I live in Northeast Ohio). This laboratory function is important and helpful and creatively freeing for a writer (or a designer or whatever).
Above all, I’ve written my 20,661 tweets because it’s been fun. It’s a creative outlet, and there are plenty of ways to disregard the more sinister corners of Twitter. This is the same rubric that guides most of my writerly ambitions and career choices: It has to be fun.
Maybe it won’t be fun at all, and very soon, if everyone bails. If, as some have predicted, the trolls multiply and jam up the wire for good. Who knows? (I mean, that will probably happen, at which point Twitter will cease to be fun, and I’ll have my own answer. Maybe even as I write this, I feel the tug toward more direct-publishing platforms, like this here blog I’ve nurtured.)
But, of course, all that aside, the incoming rule of Musk should give any self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” pause. I consider myself in that crowd, and, these days, it’s a quickly shrinking crowd. I tend to associate myself with (egads) the ideas in the infamous Harper’s letter. This is… not a popular thing, especially on Twitter as it stands today. But I think the ideas shared in that letter are critical to understanding broader shifts in mainstream media, Twitter included.
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” according to the signatories. “While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
What Musk is suggesting is more of a technocratic approach to freedom of speech, some sort of flatlining of content moderation. The principal worry is that hate speech will proliferate. You see this worry manifest among the liberal wings of the audience, those users fearing far-right rhetoric and calls for violence, and, yes, those trolls will probably be let back onto the farm if they’re not there already (I see “The Jews” is trending on Twitter this morning). But what this worry/argument against Musk does in the short-term is redefine “free speech” as “right-wing savagery,” something along those lines. With such a large audience and such a visible position of power, Musk’s free-speech rhetoric is being recast by that very large audience as a paean to MAGA World. Seen through that lens, free speech is bad! Very bad!
You see how this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those generally on the left, those most vocal journalists/users on Twitter The more we wring our hands over this concept, the more we fall into the trap decried by the Harper’s letter—the trap that suggests a narrowing of public debate and a freewheeling shame-fest over even the most mildly dissenting opinions.
Again, it helps to remember that Twitter—and social media as a hyperobject—is a cesspool of the worst human tendencies already. The problems with Twitter are already hardwired into the platform. Leaving Twitter for apparently greener pastures isn’t the solution to the problem, as inevitable as it may be.
Even as I type this admittedly brief overview of my thoughts on Twitter’s corporate directives du jour, I realize how completely out of my hands these arguments will remain. The train has left the station! Musk’s takeover of Twitter is the very zeitgeist of the early 2020s. And the exodus that follows? It’s all of a piece, all an example of the vanishing marketplace of ideas and of the great homogenization of American media.