Twitter was special. But it's time to leave
Tweets were always short-lived. Turns out Twitter was too.
If you’re terminally online—and let’s be honest, if you’re reading this you are—you’ll know all about Twitter’s new management.
For a whole year Twitter and Musk’s “will they / won’t they” dance both online and in the courts provided no shortage of commentators voicing their concerns on how it would go, with many urging people to leave for other platforms.
Until the deal closed, I expected this to be just a fad.
I don’t anymore.
It’s no big secret that I’m not a big fan of Elon. He’s a massive blowhard. But if I’m honest, I’ve never had any love for Twitter’s previous owners either. Let’s be real. Jack was also extremely weird, using his position to push hobby-horse features that nobody in their right mind actually wanted (remember NFT profile pictures? Twitter Moments? Fleets?). At the same time, basic functionality often went years waiting for some attention from Twitter engineers.
The site has always been a mess.
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So for a long time, I was very skeptical of people arguing that Musk’s unique awfulness would motivate an exodus. It’s always been popular to hate on the hellsite, and folks come and go—both individually and as groups—but in practice it rarely makes a dent, and folks stick around.
The reason why folks stayed was always pretty simple: Twitter is—or I suppose was—well, Twitter. There was nothing else quite like it.
I first joined the bird site back in mid 2011. I wrote a couple of tweets, and, finding it entirely strange and unlikeable, promptly left.
18 months or so later, I gave it another go. But this time, for a reason: to join in a conversation happening between a few experts that—generously—perhaps 50 or so people in the whole world actually cared about. The conversations were delightfully wonky, and pretty soon I was hooked. A Q&A with world experts that never ended and didn’t require getting invited to a conference halfway round the world? And for free? What a deal!
And not just one group of experts either! I could jump straight from a wonky discussion on intelligence reform straight over to a group of cybersecurity professionals diving into the absurd minutiae of breaking into computers using a complex vulnerability. Just a click away, a discussion would be sparking up between preeminent lawyers and constitutional scholars on the latest development in some case that had hidden but important ramifications, and before you could look away, suddenly a group of defense and foreign policy experts would be discussing the latest developments on the international stage, with all the details you should be paying attention to as it unfolds.
Everywhere you looked there was tiny groups of experts deeply immersed in their Thing™, and you were free to watch and learn, as well as ask questions and participate as you choose.
Twitter was also great for those of us who, until then, were massive news junkies.
Almost without trying, the good bits of every newspaper—the bits you used to have to wade through a whole newspaper to see—would get pushed to you directly as they went live. And unlike the news sites themselves, you could just directly ask the journalists about the article. If you were lucky, they’d reply. Even if you weren’t, there’s a good chance someone else would.
But that might be why people came—it’s why I did. But it’s not why people stayed.
The sticking power of the bird app was that nobody ever stayed in their lane. You might follow someone for their insights on a topic you’re interested in, but once you did, you’d often get a series of little glimpses far deeper into all the other aspects of their life too. You’d meet the whole human, not just the suit.
Where else can you see a law professor, feared and admired for their impeccable intellect and encyclopedic knowledge of separation-of-powers freely admit staying up all night to wait for the latest Taylor Swift album to drop?
What fiction author could, in their wildest surge of creativity, dream up a cybersecurity journalist, having just filed his scoop interviewing the head of NSA, who pivots nearly immediately into a friendly fight with a parody red panda account—an account who famous sleeps half the year and tweets about his heartfelt love of fries—who responds by photoshopping him into some pictures with the former Deputy Attorney General based on a six-year old in-joke that maybe the two are related?
There was no platform on Earth quite like it.
That’s what Twitter is. Or at least, what it was. A collection of haphazard groups, not just of experts, but of people. Glorious, glorious people with all the edges and whistles, and career changes, and marriages, and kids, and vacations, and dad jokes. It is the office watercooler during the day; the conference “hallway-track” during events; the Sunday barbeque social on the weekend.
This is the thing that the new ownership of Twitter never seemed to fully grasp: Twitter’s value was never about engagement or technology or checkmarks. Its value is not found in its code or the servers on which it resides, or in the 24-by-24 pixel seal of approval granted opaquely by whomever at Twitter thought an account happened to be noteworthy in real life.
The engine that drove Twitter was the people. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Twitter has certainly had its ups and downs over the years, and—at least from my perspective—began to degrade in value long before the current management took over. The reason boils down to algorithmic engagement-farming. A lot of that, if we’re honest, is the fault of the “quote tweet”. It’s hard to resist dunking on someone being wrong on the internet, particularly if they’re spectacularly wrong in an impressively pompous way. Who doesn’t want to point and laugh at the fool?
But the dunks come with a cost. Everyone who follows you now sees the fool too. And, human that they are, are inclined to issue their own dunk too. The quote tweet manufactured the concept of a Twitter “main character”; a person so wrong that everyone in the world would quickly know of it.
For a while, this seemed mostly harmless to everyone—at least apart from the main character themselves, who would have to go hide in a hole to live out their shame. Every few days a new main character would emerge for a few hours, but for the rest of us that was mostly fine. A bit of a laugh the first time you saw it, even if it got a bit tired by the 50th time you see a half-hearted dunk on some poor idiot who tweeted today’s Dumb Thing.
Originally the “main character” would last for a day and be gone by tomorrow. And having got the dunk out of the way, everyone would continue as before, using the site as that permanent watercooler / conference-hallway track that made it the world’s foremost discussion chamber.
Alas, after a while, people with no shame realized they could be the main character on purpose, continuously seeking the thrill or profit of the attention it gave them.
The run-up to the 2016 election saw this exploited in spectacular fashion by the former president. Trump discovered early on that he could tweet obnoxious things and collect enormous amounts of free attention, and, having no shame or self-reflection, enjoyed it. Worse, the more outrageous the tweet, the more attention it got.
The attention he collected off the back of it is a major part of why he won the Republican primary, much to the astonishment of the establishment Republican candidates who, at least then, understood that being obnoxious on purpose or having a basic inability to engage with reality was not, on the whole, the way to be elected.
During Trump’s administration Twitter became far more dangerous. Trump wielded his account insanely dangerously—bypassing any internal discussion by competent advisors or executive branch officials prior to tweeting out new government policy straight from the hip. He became a one-man executive branch; the whole US government lurching from side-to-side at massive policy changes announced without even a cursory attempt to check that they were workable or safely implementable beforehand.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Twitter made Trump substantially more dangerous than he otherwise would have been, and that his use of it substantially destabilized the government during his administration.
But although Trump was a serial “main character”, as president he was unlike the all main characters who went before: he was fundamentally unavoidable. He was, after all, the President; logging off didn’t change that fact.
During that whole administration, right up until the riot at the Capitol, Twitter users looked on. Some in horror. Some for the spectacle. Some out of glee. There might not have been much of substance to say—the questions being debated were mostly fundamental rather than nuanced—but it was hard not to look on into the abyss.
And that abyss was more than happy to stare back, serving ads at every eyeball staring in.
The removal of the president from the two offices that interested him most—the presidency and his twitter account—gave the platform new life. The hellsite was still a shadow of its earlier days, sure, but finally began to reemerge as a somewhat more healthy medium for serious communication.
And then Elon bought it.
Since his purchase of the bird site, Musk has shown no interest in preserving any aspect of the site that made it previously healthy or tolerable. In the three weeks he has been at the helm he has run the site pretty much as Trump ran his administration: entirely from the hip, without listening to competent advisors, and with policies issued on a whim by tweet. He has became the master of his site; no longer just an influential account, but the permanent main character of the whole platform; using his control to showcase his abject disregard for the site’s users or the health of the platform at large.
The death knell for Twitter was probably the colossal debt the purchase attached to Twitter. With interest payments to the tune of $1bn or more a year, the future of the site itself depends on obtaining colossal new sources of revenue. In practice, that means Musk needs to rinse a sizable fraction of all Twitter users for cash to pay down those bills. The Twitter Blue fiasco is essentially that—but don’t be fooled: the pay-for checkmarks drama might get a lot of the airtime, but the real killer for the site is the as-yet unimplemented decision to bury content and conversations from non-paying members of Twitter. It’s not here yet, but when it arrives soon it’ll all but guarantee the collapse of the micro-communities of experts and small content creator bubbles that made the site worthwhile.
Today’s announcement that former President Trump’s account will be back is just another step in the same vein. Despite the “free speech” rhetoric, it’s really just about engagement farming. Some people will love Trump’s tweets. Others will hate them. But Elon doesn’t really care so long as you pay to talk about it and watch ads as you do. Whatever it takes to cover the debt interest payments.
The site itself will now devolve into the spectacle of not one but two permanent main characters, relentlessly broadcast into your eyes, no matter how little you care about the vacuous awfulness of either.
But here’s the thing: neither Trump nor Musk have much relevance off the platform itself, in stark contrast to Trump’s dominance of the platform during his administration. Now you really can just log off and they’ll go away. Trump isn’t president; Musk is CEO only of his own companies.
I’m not the only one to notice. With Musk sucking the oxygen out of Twitter, the conversations are quickly moving elsewhere; mostly to Substack and to Mastodon.
I came to Twitter for the people and the conversations, but the new management has driven most of them away. There’s not much left on Twitter for me beyond the spectacle, and that was never a high value proposition for me.
So, for my part, I’ll be moving on. My account will still exist, and I’ll perhaps use it to share posts from here, to help people migrate elsewhere, or to keep up with the increasingly few people I care about still on the platform. Instead, I’ll be posting in long-form here (subscribe!), and my short-form takes will live on over at Mastodon instead. If you want to join me there, here’s a thread I wrote about how to setup your account at Mastodon and find the people you used to follow on the bird site over there too.
It’s a sad thing to see the platform die in a blaze of angry tedium. But it is what it is. As more people leave, its value declines; as its value declines, more people leave. There’s already a critical mass of interesting people on Mastodon now; something that was never true before. And you don’t owe Twitter anything. You can just leave.
After all, tweets were always an ephemeral medium.
So perhaps it is apt if the platform is too.
Hey folks! Matt here. If you enjoyed this post, please become a paid subscriber so I can spend more time writing here!
When I was getting my doctorate in plant sciences, my advisor campaigned to have me create a twitter account. In my field, twitter had become the de facto medium for disseminating scientific results, offering open peer review, networking with collaborators, and job searching. It side-lined journals, conferences, professional societies, and the department listserv. It was all-in-one. Not all scientific fields use twitter like the plant scientists do, but for us its the only place. My "professional networking" activities that are part of my job were cultivating an audience on twitter. A collapse of the community there would be a loss of my professional network. I don't know what I'm going to do.
Great article - convinced me to subscribe, and I'm not really sure what you even write about.