Can Our Thought Plutocrats Imagine a World Without Twitter?

The media's love-hate relationship with Twitter has intensified since Elon Musk took over the social media giant. But despite the flurry of alternatives like Mastodon, the path beyond Twitter is far from clear.

Twitter headquarters stands on 10th Street on November 4, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by David Odisho/Getty Images) Getty Images

This is part one of a Book Post series on Twitter. Subscribe for free to Book Post here

It’s hard sometimes to distinguish at this point in the year the shortening days and receding green from a sense of some impending seismic shift whose consequences one can’t yet clearly see—especially after a few years in which seismic shifts have come upon us with alarming regularity.

The dismantling of Elon Musk’s Twitter, for instance, has been thrust into the consciousness of the 77 percent of Americans who don’t use the platform by the excessively audible 23 percent of Americans who do. It seems either Musk’s blessing or curse that this particular “public square,” as Twitter has perhaps wishfully been called, has become so central to the lives of the very people who could most vocally protest its demolition, journalists. Semafor, the news outlet recently launched by former New York Times media columnist and BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith, declared majestically, “Twitter may be the most important company in the history of news.” Journalists wrestled to explain their affection for the site they had long derided, even as their eyes stayed glued to the screen. As James Fallows put it, Twitter had “the virtues of old-style blogging, or even older-style reader mail, with much greater breadth and immediacy. Tips and insights from a variety of sources, connections you might not have developed in other ways, a real-time sensory network for breaking news.”

Brent Staples argued that Twitter had forced journalism to become more accountable to formerly marginalized audiences. Reporter Olivia Messer and publishing-watcher Jane Friedman described how important the site, even its internal messaging system, were for their achieving visibility as young writers—even, in Messer’s case, for dating prospects. It has been an effective medium for shock purveyors to amplify their message for the very reason that journalists have lurked there so compulsively and so reliably projected back to us the world they find there as our own. Critic Bob Lefsitz wrote recently with blistering sarcasm that journalists are so woebegone at the possible demise of Twitter because they have lost touch with their audiences and don’t know to whom they are speaking when not speaking to each other there. Looking back it may seem that Twitter, like Napster, provided something that seemed great at the time at an intolerable cost. The company had only made money for one year of its life and there does seem some remote possibility that Musk actually has an idea of how to make it work as a business, though probably not one that answers these writers’ yearnings.

Is Twitter near the end?

While engineers familiar with the problems that arise in very large complex systems when they are not properly maintained make the end of Twitter under Musk’s erratic rule sound imminentseasoned tech observers caution that the end, if it is the end, will probably be prolonged, even as major participants are threatening to decamp. CBS News announced it was leaving the platform on Friday night, only to be back by the end of the weekend, as the accounts of Donald Trump and Kanye West, who had been suspended for violating Twitter’s terms of service, were being peremptorily restored. Macy’s suspended Thanksgiving Day parade advertising, the huge ad company Omnicon advised clients to pause spending on Twitter, and Group M elevated it to “high risk” for brand safety. On Sunday it emerged that Twitter’s copyright system is down, apparently allowing unlimited distribution of copyrighted material. Musk’s one identifiable product innovation, allowing users to purchase identity verification, led to a flood of scams and imposters and had to be indefinitely suspended.

It’s interesting to me that many of the alternatives to Twitter floated by its media-world denizens involve stepping away from Twitter’s high-speed, short-take character and toward more deliberative forms of reading and intentional ways of gathering. Folks are speaking again of blogs, and RSS feeds, and news aggregators, as well as closed communication loops like group chats and discord servers. The most commonly recommended replacement site, the open-source, not-for-profit platform Mastadon (descriptor here), has a longer maximum character count and is praised by enthusiasts for its more reflective tone. Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of our own newsletter platform Substack, wrote of the end of Twitter: “We believe that the next era of the social internet will be about deep relationships over shallow engagement; signal over noise; and,” referring to the fact that social media sites like Twitter sell ads on top of your uncompensated intellectual property, “ownership over serfdom.” Critic Ted Gioia cited statistics about declining social media engagement and argued that slow reading, like his Sicilian grandma’s cooking, is making a comeback. Max Read wrote, “There’s a lot to celebrate about the prospect of freeing journalism and publishing from a worldview over-shaped by the rewards and perils of a highly competitive reputation economy.”

For those of us starting small media organizations, Twitter was certainly the most effective way of reaching reading people, especially as Facebook curtailed opportunities for organization accounts and focused (supposedly) on “friends and family” and videos. Illustrator Bree Lundberg was among many to say, “Please please if you’re thinking of leaving twitter in light of it being sold to you-know-who, bookmark the sites/shops and join newsletters of artists you like!! We rely on social media for freelance and sales, don’t forget about us.” Also: Twitter was finally a word-based medium—it attracted word-oriented customers. As Alex Madrigal tweeted, laments for the loss of Twitter are informed by writers’ anxiety “about our declining relevance on an internet that has turned largely visual with a side-helping of audio.” Unlike TikTok and Instagram, Twitter can “link out” to the longer form writing where ideas can grow beyond 280 characters.

Everyone wants to be TikTok

As all the social media makers hustle after TikTok’s viral video-based algorithmic feed like their very own Pied Piper, the written word gets shorter and shorter shift on the world’s devices. In July parent company Meta discontinued Facebook’s once-much-heralded contracts for compensating (somewhat) newsgathering organizations for the content offered up by users that the platform sells advertising against. “Most people do not come to Facebook for news,” a spokesperson said bluntly in an emailed statement, “and as a business it doesn’t make sense to over invest in areas that don’t align with user preferences.” In a related decision, Press Gazette reported earlier this month that Facebook will by 2024 remove the fifteen journalists currently responsible for curating their “news” tab and replace them with artificial intelligence. This comes amidst reports that, as Facebook wrestles with a way to adhere to calls for suppressing misinformation, the AI that it tries to pass such work off onto consistently downgrades the real news with the fake.

The role of advertising in determining what we see has in recent weeks looked more benign than usual—Musk cannot alienate advertisers, his main source of revenue, too much with a toxic platform—but sociologist Zeynep Tufecki reminds us that ultimately it is advertising’s deepest desideratum—keep your eyes on the screen—that feeds the dangerous algorithmic incentive to serve up content that quickens our pulse and stokes friction. Meta’s big bet on virtual reality is also a shift away from words and crafted messages into spontaneous real-time experience. As most tech companies tighten belts and lay off employees (10,000 plus from Amazon; 11,000 from Meta, or 13 percent of its workforce; 1,200 from Snap, 20 percent of its workforce; in addition to the famous now 4,800 from Twitter, almost two-thirds of its workforce), video-sharing TikTok is hiring. Can Our Thought Plutocrats Imagine a World Without Twitter?