Elon Musk has been doing everything in his power to drive media from Twitter. Should journalists stay or go?
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When I changed my Twitter display name to “Elon Musk can eat shit and die” soon after the world’s second-richest person and fascism fanboy took over the social media site in late October, I halfway figured I’d get busted for it amid Musk’s meltdown over “parody” accounts and the Twitter Blue debacle. Instead, I was stuck for over a month with what I joked was a seasonal moniker, a placeholder between Halloween’s “Andreaaaaahhh! Grimes” and my annual “Christmas Grimes (Is Here Again),” a temporary ode to one very sad billionaire’s fragile fuckery.
In mid-December, verified users were finally able to edit our display names once again, but the fragile fuckery is perennial, and not nearly so benign as a bit of techy inconvenience: At around the same time, Musk began suspending journalists who tweeted about Twitter’s suspension of an account that tracked publicly available data on Musk’s personal jet. The billionaire claimed that this reporting and commentary, which did not contain private identifying or location information, amounted to “doxxing,” putting him at risk of of “assassination.” Twitter also began suspending and banning accounts associated with, linking to or promoting Mastodon, a rising Twitter competitor before issuing, and then rescinding a policy banning links to even more competing platforms. While Musk’s mother logged on to chastise users for not supporting her good widdle boy, users themselves have voted Musk out in his own Twitter poll.
This all happened just days after Musk sicced his own homophobic Twitter mob on former Twitter head of trust and safety Yoel Roth, implying the gay Jewish man was a groomer, forcing Roth to flee his home along with his family. Roth had criticized Musk’s stewardship of the social media platform following his resignation in November.
Taken with Musk’s other stunts over the last year or so, it’s clear not he’s so much a free-speech absolutist as an alt-right stooge who paid for Twitter with authoritarian state blood money so he could re-platform Nazis and fascists.
Remaining on Twitter becomes less defensible by the day. But in the absence of reliable alternatives, I don’t relish the process of finding a new way to connect with the Twitter audiences I’ve cultivated over the last 15 years while the platform limps its way into unusability as a buggy, vulnerable web property owned by a real-life Kendall Roy with twice the desperation and a fraction of the talent. Already, the Great De-Twittering has seen users scatter to a hodgepodge of alternatives—established options TikTok, Tumblr, Discord, and Instagram, upstarts like Post, Cohost, and Hive (which has had its own issues), and an entire field of lumbering Mastodons—as Musk reestablishes Twitter as a refuge for bigots and abusers. Like many journalists who are among Twitter’s most prolific users, I have significantly scaled back, but I haven’t been ready to jump ship entirely. And not just for professional reasons, though Twitter has long been my main outlet to promote my writing and cultivate professional connections, especially as a freelancer.
Despite this, I have never considered Twitter—my Twitter, its own unique ecosphere—to be a mere professional tool where I #optimize my #outreach to #audiences. Doing so feels disturbingly mercenary. I may be fooling myself in the era of professional influencers and hashtag-brands, but I walked uphill both ways in the snow, tweeting hard to win over 39,700 or so followers and find 4,300 folks of my own who I wanted to hear from most every day. Those numbers are not particularly impressive, especially not for someone who’s been tweeting since close to day one, but they are important to me because of the real people and communities they represent: the friends and lovers and colleagues and strangers who have surrounded and grounded and educated and enraged and challenged and cared for me, 140 and then 280 characters at a time.
I have, as they say, “tweeted through it” for practically my entire adult life. I hardly remember what it was to experience a major news event without Twitter. I was on the platform for the launch of the iPhone and the ’08 market crash, for Barack Obama’s election, for the Arab Spring, for #MeToo, for the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of Sandra Bland and the rise of #SayHerName and the murders of Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson and George Floyd. For the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, and the Walmart in El Paso, TX, and Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, and countless others. I’ve tweeted 15 years of the Texas Legislature, including the abortion-rights filibuster that defined the early years of my work as a repro-rights reporter, and the Supreme Court decisions in Whole Women’s Health and June Medical Services and Dobbs. I turned to Twitter during every presidential debate, for Donald Trump’s election and impeachment, for the white supremacist attack in Charlottesville, VA, that killed Heather Heyer, for two Russian invasions of Ukraine and one American insurrection. For hurricanes and wildfires and a freeze that left hundreds of my fellow Texans dead. For the coronavirus pandemic.
For all of those events and countless others, Twitter could be wherever and whatever we needed it to be, 100 million places at once. It’s a dance club and a funeral parlor, a place of worship and a pub, a beauty shop and a library, a theater and a laboratory, a classroom and a stadium. Because Twitter is people. I’m beyond caring how corny this sounds: Twitter literally is the friends (and sometimes the enemies) we made along the way. Without them, I would be a different person—and not in a good way.
I have written hundreds of thousands of tweets and naturally forgotten all but a very few. One that stands out in my memory is from 2011, in the wake of the latest mass shooting. It was the first time I remember really sticking my foot in my mouth online, and Twitter let me know. I was musing, in the manner of the wholly ignorant and thus thoroughly confident, about what a dangerous job cops have, and how mental health issues were the real gun problem. I’m sure I picked up those ideas from the mainstream liberal white pundits and feminists and academics whose work reinforced my world views, demanded no serious introspection, and asked little of me in the way of action.
Twitter—my Twitter—offered correctives, with varying levels of civility. Somebody replied with a list of the top ten most dangerous jobs in the U.S.—law enforcement wasn’t even close. Another noted that people with mental health diagnoses are vastly more likely to be killed by cops or anyone else, than to be violent toward others. Lots of people just called me names and dunked on me, but others took the time to hold my hand through patient explanations that I am sure required a great deal of emotional energy. The experience challenged the identity I’d cultivated as an irreverent feminist voice who had only the best takes about #ladybusiness. It forced me to interrogate why and how I had developed a full-stack suite of concepts about the way the world worked with very little input from people directly harmed by gun violence or police violence. I’d covered crime early in my career, but rarely worked with an editor who encouraged me to do anything more than take the police at their word, and of course mental health stigma remains pervasive even in the smartest takes. And all of this after I had completed an entire graduate degree that required in-depth study of feminist and womanist literature and powerful critiques of capitalism and colonialism.
But there was so much I had yet to learn about the world, and so little likelihood of my gleaning it all from the establishment entities that many of my editors and professors and mentors assured me would be my best guides. Of course higher education and journalism and the communities I’d built in the arts and activism changed me. But Twitter—my Twitter—felt explosive and expansive, a place where mainstream discourse was important, but didn’t have to be venerated; lived experience mattered just as much. On Twitter, depending on the day, I could take the time to play educator or entertainer, student or audience. Twitter accelerated my own intersectional political awakening, and I believe did so for tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of others. It taught me how to apologize and how to hold others accountable. Sometimes the tweets had me crying laughing, and sometimes just crying. And it wasn’t just thousands of avatars screaming inside my phone, a site for sanctimonious hashtag activism and bad-faith fallouts. Twitter also introduced me to some of my best, actual-real-life friends and most cherished colleagues, people I never would have known had we not crossed paths on the hellscape bird app.
Through it all, Twitter has been a sandcastle under siege, always one high tide away from annihilation, but it’s awful to watch it be destroyed in slow motion by an entitled rich kid drunk-driving a dune buggy. Other social media outfits have died slow, strip-mall deaths as users moved to more appealing properties. But until Musk’s takeover, Twitter coexisted easily with other platforms, humming quietly but reliably in the background, powering an endless stream of content that could be adapted for TikTok or Instagram. Now, the grid is glitching out. Assuming Twitter can avoid a targeted attack on its infrastructure, it will probably remain online for months, longer if Musk opts to adequately restaff his operation. Whether it will be an enticing experience for anyone but bots and bigots is another question.
The last time we all thought Twitter might die, back in 2017 when the concern was just garden variety unprofitability, I wondered in these very virtual pages: When Twitter goes, will it be “like having your hot water cut off? Or would it be like seeing your favorite sneakers discontinued?”
Well, now we know: It’s a lot more like having your hot water cut off. The Twitter replacement situation, or lack thereof, is as bad now as it was five years ago. We still don’t have anything that can match Twitter’s urgency, ease of use, and incredible range. Folks are making their best efforts to find new homes online and ease others into the transition, but it’s rough and decentralized. On Mastodon, it seems every new user either bursts through the front door naked and crying, or knocks doggedly until you open up and agree to sign their petition, while Tumblr seems to be taking on the Twitter influx with aplomb and not a little bemusement. And let’s just say the learning curve for TikTok is clearly very, very steep for new users creating original content.
And Twitter content still feeds, if not outright dominates, most of other platforms. Post, for example, is full of how-to’s and impassioned pleas for users to either stop talking about Twitter or stop complaining about people who won’t stop talking about Twitter. I don’t even know what’s happening on Hive, which went offline in early December due to “security issues.” I suppose that’s a relief; I literally do not have the capacity to learn how to use one more new thing right now. Those of us trying to hold down accounts in five or six new spots until one finally rises to the surface are struggling with the time, creativity, and energy suck of deciding whether, when, and how to post or repost or create new content for each outlet.
I am not optimistic. None of these new contenders has demonstrated to be, or likely will be, capable of doing the one thing Twitter really does better than anyone else: hold contradictions. Twitter is a global forum and a kitchen table; a cesspool of bigotry and a stage where marginalized people can control the mic; a family newspaper with a pornography section. And now, Twitter has become a public utility controlled by an egomaniacal tech baron. Which means those who can stand it are going to be taking cold showers for the foreseeable future.
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