In the beginning, I was a Twitter sceptic. Back in 2009 I was a keen blogger, taking full advantage of Web 2.0’s spaciousness to write long-form reviews of performance. By then Twitter was already three years old and a lot of people were nagging me to join this cool new microblogging platform.
I resisted for a long time. What, I asked – demonstrating exactly how wrong I can be – could I possibly have to say in 140 characters? Wasn’t the entire premise of Twitter kind of appalling? But I finally caved and signed up in November 2009 with the immortal first tweet: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Here I am.” And here I am still, more than 137,000 tweets later.
How does anyone sum up a phenomenon as complex as Twitter? Social media is as various as the people who use – and abuse – its platforms. Despite the ever-increasing dominance of algorithms and advertising, every user curates their experience, choosing who they follow, who they take notice of, who they engage with. For those who, like me, worked from home, Twitter became a water cooler – a place for jokes, games and fun conversations in breaks.
I rapidly discovered that it meant a new unity of my public self. For years my audiences were siloed: people knew of me as a poet or a fantasy novelist or a critic but were not aware of my other work, and I was used to encountering readers and colleagues in different spaces off- and online. On Twitter, all my different interests collided in a single time line. I found this refreshing, a talking across boundaries rather than within them.
This quality in particular remains the single best thing about Twitter. And also, maybe, the worst.
The wave of sentiment that swept over the site in the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover last month showed that for many users, Twitter had a massive impact on our lives. I made more real-life friends on Twitter than on any other platform. People met their spouses and created careers. They formed communities and then with their collective voices they changed their worlds. Perhaps most importantly – and as with everything Twitter, this worked for both good and ill – it was a place where people were able to encounter new ideas.
The past decade on Twitter has been a huge part of my adult education. I encountered people whom I would never have met and was exposed to ideas that would have been inaccessible through other kinds of media. For the first time, people sidelined by the mainstream could speak for themselves in public. This remains revolutionary: it has changed our world in countless ways.
Anyone who breathlessly watched the Arab Spring unfold on Twitter in 2011 – and the counter-revolution that followed – or the spread of #BlackLivesMatter in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, can have no doubt of Twitter’s power as both a megaphone and a tool for organising. These events turned Twitter itself into a news source. The 24-hour news cycle and constant search for virality that characterises contemporary news gathering has been shaped by Twitter more than any other platform.
There are so many examples of how Twitter was used to publicise issues that later became mainstream. First Nations activists and writers generously shared their cultures and their lives, and formed strong online communities both to support each other and to protest over issues such as Black deaths in custody. #BlackTwitter raised awareness of racism and created a place for solidarity among those affected by it. #DisabilityTwitter provided access to people with disabilities who struggled to find a public voice and were often isolated in their homes.
The #MeToo movement – initially begun by Black activist Tarana Burke to empower victims of sexual assault and harassment – hit the headlines after the Harvey Weinstein allegations became public in 2017, prompting a tsunami of victims to post their own experiences. The scandal of robo-debt was first exposed in late 2016 on Twitter under #NotMyDebt by digital activists, including Asher Wolf and Lyndsey Jackson.
Along with the surge towards social justice – and in large part, in response to it – came forces of repression and violence. The years-long phenomenon known as #Gamergate started in 2013 and was a dark harbinger of much that followed. It began in the internet cesspits of 4Chan and, later, 8Chan, where edgelords, men’s rights activists and neo-Nazis plotted to take down critics of the misogyny and racism that is rampant in gaming culture. This focused the targeted abuse that also characterised Twitter into mass campaigns of online harassment that were intended to – and often did – drive critics offline.
At the time, many people dismissed Gamergate as being of niche interest – who cares about video games? Steve Bannon was quick to see Gamergate’s potential as a recruitment tool and amplified its grievances on his website Breitbart, launching the careers of far-right opportunists such as Milo Yiannopoulos. It modelled a strategy of public disingenuity and mass trolling that was picked up by Hindu extremists, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, Christofascists and, more recently, terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists).
Along with the trolls came ever more sophisticated armies of bots and increasingly disturbing disinformation campaigns – the mess that we know as the contemporary internet. Twitter depended on the so-called engagement sparked by the far right and, even before Musk, was slow to deal with its Nazi problem. It’s commonly accepted that the huge platform that Twitter gave to far-right and white-nationalist extremists, from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage to Nick Fuentes, was a major contribution to events such as Brexit and the January 6 assault on the Capitol last year.
Under Musk’s increasingly chaotic takeover, Twitter’s future is deeply uncertain. Many predict it will go the way of GeoCities and Myspace, once ubiquitous online platforms that have vanished with the information superhighway. Some, pointing to mass layoffs at Facebook and elsewhere, proclaim that the age of social media is over altogether. People who found communities through Twitter are left bereft, wondering if anything can replace the solidarity that, for all its problems, they discovered on their favourite hellsite. Some have vowed to stay until the bitter end.
Twitter might not survive Musk’s insupportable debt, reckless sackings and blatant contraventions of legal obligations in Europe, America and elsewhere. So far, the departure of major advertisers hasn’t persuaded Musk to mend his ways. Worse, Musk tweeted on Thursday that Apple was threatening to boot the app from its store – which would be catastrophic for Twitter – claiming that Apple “won’t tell us why”. It’s increasingly clear that the lack of moderation, which Musk vaingloriously defended in subsequent tweets as “free speech” in a “battle for the future of civilization”, could well be the site’s downfall.
There are several alternatives being touted at the moment. The frontrunner is Mastodon, a decentralised social network which, after the Elonquakes of the past month, has now reached a critical mass of seven million accounts that will likely ensure it continues. But it doesn’t offer the reach of Twitter, is complex to sign up to and initially bewildering, and there are other aspects – being unable to search, for example – that are deliberately designed to frustrate the extractive techniques that made Twitter such a driver for news. Hive Social, a start-up apparently run by three people, is much more user-friendly, but its privacy and safety policies are, to put it kindly, vague. Yet another is the news-driven Post.
It’s increasingly clear that, even if Twitter does survive, it won’t be the same. Some people – pointing to rumours that billionaire libertarian Peter Thiel was one of the forces behind Musk’s takeover – argue Musk’s intention is in fact to destroy one of the most useful tools for social justice that we’ve seen in recent history.
The return of suspended accounts such as Trump’s – although Trump has so far ignored Musk’s embarrassing bids for attention – or Ye (formerly Kanye West), who was banned for anti-Semitism – and then banned again – or Andrew Anglin, editor of neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, suggest that Musk’s intention might be to transform Twitter into a massive platform for the far right. Wired recently reported that hate speech increased markedly on the platform after the takeover, even before the sacking of Twitter’s moderators. More ominously, after polling his 115 million followers last week, Musk announced an amnesty for suspended accounts – effectively an amnesty on trolls.
Posting his decision, Musk said: “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” – the voice of the people, the voice of God. It’s a very Twitter thing that the full quote, from an eighth-century monk named Alcuin of York, is a warning: “Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, vox populi, vox dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.” “Do not listen to those who say the voice of the people is the voice of God,” said Alcuin. “Since the tumult of the crowd is always close to madness.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 3, 2022 as "Tweet hereafter".
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