The unprofitable social-media giant—a bot-and-troll-infested hellscape—has changed the way we disseminate and digest our information. Is the platform worth defending?
It was of those days when it’s hard to get off Twitter long enough to write another article about Twitter. There are many of these kinds of days these days. This was a day when breaking news about Trump-adjacent chicanery was eclipsed by breaking news about a powerful man committing sexual abuse. It was a day when we were still catching up on the latest revelations from a recent mass shooting and digesting devastating stories about Americans caught in the wake of a deadly natural disaster. A day when Twitter announced a hyped but ultimately useless change to the way the service works instead of pushing neo-Nazis off its platform.
On days like this, Twitter—which is an awful hellscape of harassment and offensive tomfoolery—is still the best awful hellscape on which to get, digest, and disseminate news. I had a bunch of conversations that I always seem to have on these kinds of days, which start with: I hate Twitter! I can’t live without it.
I’ve tried to quit before, only to come crawling back, thirsty for the jokes and the insights and the diversity of voices that I can only find on Twitter. I am addicted. I cannot quit any time I want. I am in thrall to a computer program. What would I do without Twitter?
It’s possible that decision could be made for me and 330 million or so other users, if the company doesn’t find a way to become profitable. Twitter has a reason for catering to literally anyone (or any Russian robot—any bot at all) who can string enough characters together to create an account—it needs to show growth because it needs to sell eyeballs to advertisers, however sketchy (or racist, or artificially intelligent) the brains behind those eyeballs might be. The company is exploring other revenue streams—including selling user data—and has said it might make money this quarter.
Or, you know, Twitter might be its own undoing because it might be all of our undoing. At a cellular level. Twitter just gave Donald Trump 140 extra characters in which to start a nuclear war, and the president of the United States seems determined to use them for the purpose.
When Twitter goes, will it be due to unprofitability—or something worse?
“I don’t think it’ll take the apocalypse,” my friend, journalist Dan Solomon, advised me, cheerily punctuating his thoughts about the coming end of humanity with an exclamation point. I asked Solomon, who writes about politics and culture for for everywhere you’ve ever heard of, what might spell the end of the Twitterverse. He was matter-of-fact: “I think it’ll take investors realizing that having the ability to make money commensurate with their investment is what makes a business valuable.”
Well, when you put it that way. But what does a world without Twitter look like? It’s hard to imagine, because we haven’t yet done what we usually do when it comes to leaving hyperpopular social-media platforms: Find another one. You don’t miss Friendster, do you? Of course not. You were already on MySpace when Friendster fizzled out. And you’d probably already built a robust Facebook profile long before you posted the last glittery kitten gif on your MySpace page.
Social media outfits don’t tend to die—they tend to be abandoned for services that offer a similar, but better, user experience. Twitter is different. There are services that closely mimic Twitter and even offer a better, safer user experience—take Mastodon, for example—but none of them have 300 million users. None of them are used daily by international celebrities and politicians. Mastodon is a fine chatroom, but it’s not a global water cooler. (Not yet, at least: I am prepared for 2019 Andrea Grimes to eat her hat.)
Except Twitter isn’t a global water cooler, either, even if feels that way to those of us who treat it like a combination living room, local pub, and cable news channel. Facebook has two billion monthly users, six times more than Twitter. Twitter’s growth is incredibly slow compared to other platforms.
And yet, when Twitter works, it really works. It allows people who don’t have access to establishment media to develop their own audiences and their own voices—and to promote their larger own work on their own Medium or Patreon pages—without having a foot in the door at legacy publications. Twitter also gives local activists a way to reach millions—including national media personalities—during acts of civil disobedience and protest, democratizing narratives that would otherwise be shaped solely by gatekeepers and outsiders. And Twitter allows average folks to subvert the news cycle by demanding coverage, and amplifying coverage, of essential stories that slip through the cracks in mostly male, mostly white newsrooms.
“How much would you know about native issues, water rights, Puerto Rico, without social media?” mused Mikki Kendall, a Chicago-based writer who uses Twitter better than just about anyone I know. “We can’t afford for Twitter to go away or be replaced.”
Kendall describes building her writing career in reverse—moving from a LiveJournal following to Twitter to, now, writing for comics, feminist non-fiction, and legacy pubs like the Guardian and the Washington Post.
“Twitter let me do it backwards,” Kendall said. “I think for a lot of marginalized people who are writers, social media has been a huge force for them to seen.”
Seen, but by who? Not all of those eyes are friendly—which Kendall knows better than most. Black women in particular are targeted by racist, misogynist trolls who never seem to sleep. They have been for years; Black women have long been sounding the alarm about the growing “alt-right” and Neo-Nazis proliferating on Twitter. And they have long been ignored.
“I’m not sure the trade-off is worth it,” said Kendall, between building a career and navigating consistently foul notifications. She expressed deep ambivalence about the platform. Because, yeah, we can’t afford to lose Twitter—but we also can’t afford to keep putting up with the bullshit that makes it almost unusable for people of color, transgender folks, women, queer people—anyone, really, who dares to challenge the status quo by simply existing. As Kendall put it: “Do I actually like Twitter, or do I like Twitter as I’ve crafted my experience?”
Like Kendall, I’ve whittled down and honed my Twitter feed and notifications to filter out most of the worst kinds of harassment I’m likely to get. Between block lists and preemptive muting, I don’t see a lot of the filth that comes my way. And because I’m a “verified” user, I can choose whether I want to read responses from the great unwashed, unverified peanut gallery—okay in theory, but in practice, less so. After all, Twitter verifies Nazis. Twitter verifies odious scumbags who doxx sexual assault survivors. Just last week, a bunch of folks I think of as “anime Nazis” (a particular genre of Twitter troll—bots and real users who use cartoon avatars to create accounts used to harass people and most right-wing memes) flooded my mentions with a dipshit Shrek meme. Why? Because they were mad about my support for gun regulations, and when I reported every tweet, Twitter told me—dozens of times, as I made dozens of reports—that this kind of targeted harassment wasn’t against its terms of service.
Ultimately, I don’t care much about this kind of nonsense. It’s easy to block and mute anime Nazis and there aren’t more of them than there are people I genuinely love interacting with online. In fact, I use my Twitter account almost deliberately to attract and distract these types of trolls from doing far more sinister shit in real life. I think of my Twitter persona as a kind of stick-puppet that looks and acts and talks enough like me to be a satisfying target for trolls both inane and malevolent. Kendall echoed this kind of online diversion as an “easy valve” for harassers, abusers and trolls.
“They’ll yell in my mentions, and because I have things set up so I don’t see that, 90 percent of the time I have no idea,” she said. “Whatever, you’re mad at me, you feel validated because you called me a cunt 427 times. Whatever the ego stroke is you get from shouting into the void, angry that women are speaking … they think they’re having an effect.”
I wonder, without Twitter, would the trolls take to the streets? To my street? Or would they just fade away? The question brings us back to how people use Twitter, how Twitter sees itself, and the wholesale lack of a viable replacement platform on which trolls—or anyone—might regroup in Twitter’s absence.
“There aren’t a lot of other platforms right now that have that same ability as Twitter to spread ideas and spread content,” said Aaron Sankin, a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting who covers internet culture and safety. Sankin cited the work of Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger on ISIS’s exploitation of social media, noting that they found the most effective way to combat extremist ideology was to just delete accounts and Tweets, entirely.
Maybe, without Twitter, the trolls don’t take to the streets. Maybe they just go back to the basement. But when the trolls have nowhere to go, neither do the rest of us. And lots of people, myself included, have come to treat Twitter like a public utility instead of a business.
“We want Nazis to be banned, because Nazis organizing on Twitter is a social bad, but there are no real consequences for Twitter to continue providing a platform to Nazis,” said Dan Solomon when I first asked him to consider the end of Twitter, “and the benefits —gotta keep growing that user base!—are the path to profitability.”
But Twitter itself, and a few other social-media platforms, seem to want to have it both ways. Twitter wants to operate like a (profitable) business and only hold itself accountable to the extent it needs to hold itself together, as Solomon noted. But Sankin also hit on something essential to the nerdo-libertarian ideological backbone on which Silicon Valley’s sneaker-clad execs have built many of these outfits. They sometimes see themselves as, if not public utilities, a kind of government proxy, or tech-brotopia simulation.
Take Reddit, for example. In the wake of the site’s own harassment-related reckoning, its chief executive Yishan Wong wrote in a blog post about Reddit’s dedication to “free speech” that “every man is responsible for his own soul.”
“That’s something a politician would have to say,” said Sankin. In a statement about handling online harassment in 2016, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey echoed Wong’s sentiment, writing that “Twitter stands for freedom of expression, speaking truth to power, and empowering dialogue. That starts with safety.”
Protection, freedom, self-determination—it’s practically the United States Constitution up in here! Except it’s not, because this is the internet and we’re just sending each other cat photos. Except it’s not, because this is the internet and we’re using it to do democracy—in Texas, in Ferguson, at Standing Rock—the list goes on. Would losing Twitter be like having your hot water cut off? Or would it be like seeing your favorite sneakers discontinued?
For journalists, it’s sort of … both. Bobby Blanchard, who manages social media for the online pub the Texas Tribune, told me that Twitter is essential for keeping an eye on the news, even if it’s not great for doing what he wants to do with that news—start a meaningful conversation about it among the Trib’s readership. Blanchard told me he has push alerts on around 100 Twitter users—journalists, politicians, officials—and can’t always wait for a story to make it into even digital ink before he’s on top of it. The demand, he said, among “insiders and journalists” for a Twitter replacement would be high. Really, really high.
“Would it be better? Would it be financially successful? No clue!” Blanchard told me—via, of course, Twitter direct message—but whatever it was, he says he’d at least try to make it work. I guess we all would—especially since existing platforms like Facebook are so thoroughly bad for what Twitter is so thoroughly good for.
“If you’re a troll, a journalist, or a turn-of-the-screw news consumer, Facebook doesn’t come close,” Blanchard said. I am prepared to drag Facebook harder.
Facebook entirely lacks urgency. Its timeline, which I am constantly having to reset in order to get my newest news first, is a joke. Facebook thinks users care more about posts that have more comments on them, so it mostly shows high-comment posts, creating a maddening and asinine echo chamber that basically shows me the same five posts about my friends’ dead pets and grandmothers over and over again. The trade-off is that I don’t get harassed very much on Facebook, because Facebook is probably moderately better at handling harassment, but also because who’s going to harass me over a heart emoji I left on Fido’s memorial, friends-only photo album?
And anyway, on the off chance I stumble on to my neighbor’s uncle’s latest racist Facebook rant, I’m just going to skip it. I can get the same racism in 140 characters or less on Twitter and not have to start a family feud among strangers when I call someone an asshole. Or, I could — Twitter just announced that it’s giving every user, from Donald Trump to his Nazi superfans to your grandma to yours truly, double the characters. So it may not take the apocalypse or even a mass investor wake-up to shutter Twitter, if Twitter is becoming more and more like Facebook every day, in the most worthless ways—the posts are too long, they’re sometimes shown out of order and without even the whispered promise of seriously curbing hate speech and harassment.
There is a term for this in the tech world, I think? Planned obsolescence.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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