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Why I Mourn Twitter and Why I Shouldn't
For the past two weeks, the biggest conversation on Twitter has been about Twitter itself and the changes wrought by Elon Musk. News of mass quitting after a mass firing lead some on Thursday to believe that the site was about to crash. People were writing good-bye tweets, or thinking wistfully about connections made and friendships forged. It felt like a collective last day of high school.
I use Twitter more than any other social media site. I probably spend more time on Twitter every day than I do watching movies or television, and about as much as I do reading books. It’s my primary mode of entertainment. It’s a great way to find news and the level of political commentary is far more intelligent and insightful than what can be found on cable news or in the pages of prestige newspapers. Opinion columnists with their well-paid sinecures barf out the usual conventional wisdom twice weekly and their insights don’t hold a candle to legions of grad students with joke names on Twitter. Speaking of humor, the jokes there are far funnier than what I see on television.
More than anything else, Twitter proved that the people who sit atop our cultural and media edifice aren’t necessarily there because they are the most insightful political commenters or funniest joke writers. The thought that Twitter might disappear upsets me because I don’t want to have to go back to subsisting on the canting bullshit of the American media’s spokespeople when I am trying to make sense of current events. Twitter allowed those figures to be humbled on a regular basis by viral reply tweets from nobodies. In a pre-Twitter world these were people used to sycophants and adulation. Us plebs couldn’t tell them what we really thought.
Elon Musk was one of those powerful people humbled and embarrassed on a regular basis, and I have no doubt that dynamic more than anything else led him to buy Twitter. His erratic moves as Twitter’s new head have turned him into a Captain Ahab like figure, destroying himself as he seeks to destroy the thing that torments him. All he had to do was just shut up and count his money!
As much as I lament Twitter’s potential demise, I also must take stock of what it has taken away. It has given me contacts with some wonderful people and a far deeper understanding of so much of the world, to be sure. But I cannot escape the knowledge that it is ultimately just another tool of capitalist moneymaking.
An agora owned by a corporation is not really an agora. Before Musk, Twitter set up its algorithms to keep me on the site as much as possible. It kept throwing tweets into my feed by people I didn’t follow to make me angry and agitated. Just this morning I got sucked into a discourse around someone upset that people bring food to events, considering it oppressive. The original poster was making an outlandish claim that few people in real life would agree to, but it was the kind of red meat that keeps the clicks going. I found myself getting mad at someone I didn’t know only because Twitter was making me feel that way for their own financial gain. I wasted a chunk of my weekend doing this. How useless.
Like the rest of social media, Twitter is an engine of indoctrination into late capitalism. Even the most ardent critics of the status quo spend their time building followings and chasing clout, participants in a literal marketplace of ideas. They troll and make outlandish statements because that’s what gets attention. If this is our shared space for ideas, it’s a bad and stilted way to go about it. Not to mention that the shortness of tweets as a format leads to oversimplification and aggression when sharing ideas.
Those factors are why Donald Trump was the Twitter user who gained the most power from his posts, driving media narratives during the nightmare five year period when he stood at the center of American discourse. The fact that he was the one to marshal its power most effectively, not activist movements, is telling. A man like him -shameless, cunning, and stupid- is what Twitter is set up to elevate.
Before Elon Musk bought Twitter, the public sphere was already owned by private corporate interests. His shenanigans have highlighted that reality in ways that are now hard to ignore. As Twitter morphs into something else, I think it is important for us to dream big and think about what a true online public sphere would actually look like. Could we build a publicly owned social media? We have public television and radio and schools after all. Decades of neoliberalism have poisoned us into thinking that we just have to let the Musks of the world dominate our public discourse because they have the money. As much as I like Twitter, it’s time to build something far better than it was or ever could have been.