A Post-Twitter World
You’ve probably seen the news. Twitter is in turmoil. Since Elon Musk took over on October 27th there’s been a dramatic cascade of chaotic decisions. Are we entering a post-Twitter world?
Twitter now faces a perilous future. It could succumb to catastrophic technical failure because of the vast reduction in its work force. A few weekends ago the platform had a “drinking on the deck of the titanic” vibe as people said their goodbyes expecting an imminent demise.
Twitter was already losing money and stands to lose a lot more; advertisers are withdrawing due in part to the massive cuts in content moderation and ad support staff. It is subject to strict FTC oversight and any failure to comply, again made more likely by reduced staff numbers, could cripple cashflow. Or it could fail to comply with European GDPR requirements, for the same reasons. Finally, there’s been an exodus of users and even the remaining Twitter employees, who simply don’t want to put up with Musk’s antics.
This begs the question: should you stay or should you go? And if you go, where will you go?
When the drama first unfolded, I sat at my dining table in Adelaide and tried to write something for those of us who used to love Twitter. The words didn’t come easily.
It’s a big table. Sturdy. Heavy. Made from old railway sleepers that bear the cracks and scars of years out in the elements. I bought it from a furniture maker in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, in 1994. It was made from reclaimed timber laid down over a hundred years before. The table predates the popularization of the internet, and the wood is older than the advent of radio and mass media.
Sitting at that table, I started to wonder whether the question was bigger than what you should do about Twitter.
Maybe the real question is whether you should be on social media at all.
Twitter: A Culture Company?
Back in April, after rumors first surfaced about Musk buying Twitter, I wrote a long piece on its potential future. It still feels relevant, especially on matters of content moderation and verification.
Since then it seems Musk’s big error was to assume he was buying a technology business. If Twitter was just about the tech, then you could understand how cutting costs, raising prices, and driving efficiencies could improve the company. That’s how an engineer or production manager would tackle the problem. It’s been done to turn around underperforming factories for centuries.
But Twitter isn’t primarily a technology company. It’s a media company. Actually, it’s a culture company. It runs on technology but its problems are human problems. It’s less like a factory and more like a country. Twitter’s fundamental difficulty is human behaviour, and especially the behaviours people exhibit while on the platform.
You know those mesmerising and ever-shifting patterns made by large flocks of birds? They’re called murmations. It turns out that groups of people online act collectively, to filter ideas and form beliefs, in ways that are very reminiscent of avian murmations. As Renée DiResta explains in this piece from Noēma, entitled How Online Mobs Act Like Flocks Of Birds, platforms such as Twitter have to “…prioritize rethinking design.”
The problems are simply too complex to solve with reactive content moderation policies. The culture of the platforms must change, and deep research is required into how people behave on them. It also requires changes to the behaviour that is rewarded and the incentives on the platform.
Of course, Twitter was trying to do this. It was conducting design and research initiatives to change the platform’s culture, such as Spaces (social audio) and Communities (interest-led sub-groups). It was also building incentive structures to reward content creators, such as Super Follows (a fan pays support service) and a Tip Jar (micropayments).
The teams working on all those changes have been laid off.
Twitter: The Hell Site
It’s popular now to refer to Twitter as the hell site. But it wasn’t always like that. Had it been, it would never have gained popularity. More specifically, it would never have been so popular with the kind of users who flocked to it early on, the artists and creatives and designers, and the media, marketing and advertising people who brought so much life and verve to the platform in its early days.
Twitter didn’t initially flourish because of news or politics. These came to dominate the platform later.
Back then Twitter was full of TEDTalks rather than commentary on TV news. The platform was upbeat, aspirational, and funny. People talked about their lives, and their lives were interesting and worth talking about.
A friend who runs a social media agency often used to ask, “What will happen to Twitter when it becomes mainstream?” Of course, now we know.
Despite being far smaller than Facebook, Twitter became more culturally influential. But it had to grow and attract more users and revenue, in order to appeal to and appease investors. It was never clear, at least back then, how to do that. Twitter was and still is a great product and a terrible business (as Kara Swisher has often said).
It pivoted to become more of a news service. It increased the ad business and tweaked the algorithm to tighten “engagement.”
We know how all that worked out. Twitter became an amplifier of outrage, a megaphone for the megalomaniacal, a killing floor for the victims of trolls.
Twitter Was A Tool For Demarginalisation
This past week or so I’ve noticed a lot of people expressing their gratitude for Twitter. It helped people make friends and land jobs. It gave visibility to people who felt marginalised in society because of their background, beliefs, or other aspects of their identity.
While so much of the debate around verification was centred on celebrities and journalists, looking again at who is verified is a reminder that the symbol is attached to so many academics, activists, and artists; the people who shape culture and make society better.
Of course, Twitter became an enabler of a lot of hate and misinformation. Sadly Twitter failed to get safety right from Gamergate onwards.
But, it was also an outstanding tool for hearing directly from experts, like in the early days of the pandemic, when many news outlets and public health officials lagged behind the advice of scientists and disease experts.
And, it gave us access to people in all sorts of fields whose voices seldom get heard in an increasingly narrow global media landscape.
We can all do with less of the toxicity. But can we do without the positives the platform provided? Would we want to?
The Latest Exodus
There’s was some buzz around Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter. This happened before, in 2018, and nothing came of it. Every few years there is a purported exodus from Twitter. Ello and Peach were touted as potential alternatives in the past. Post and Hive are being talked about now. This time feels a bit different. The exodus feels bigger this time. It includes more people who use social media professionally or as part of their personal brand. Many are trying to be optimistic. But there’s an air of provisionality as well, an “I’m doing this in case Twitter blows up,” kind of vibe.
It’s pretty obvious that Mastodon can’t replicate the network effects of Twitter. It’s hard to be found even when people know to look for you, let alone be discovered. For anyone who has managed to grow their career or personal network on Twitter, or who has sold their art, music, or other products or services thanks to Twitter, the answer will be something other than Mastodon.
On the other hand, it could even be that Twitter eventually thrives. Radical cuts and changes might work. It’s not impossible to imagine Musk hiring a competent CEO, the debt being restructured, a better ad and SAAS business being built, a more vibrant creator economy, third party innovation being built, and Twitter being relaunched after a new IPO.
But whether you choose Musk or “the tusk” the questions remain: why are you there, what do you hope to gain from the experience, and how will behave to get there?
The Real Question Is Not Where, But Why?
Starting again on Mastodon feels exhausting. Tumblr, in its 2022 iteration, looks like fun, and even has micropayments built right in from the first post. But that’s another mountain to climb. Same for somewhere new like Post. A lot of other people are trying to build “the new Twitter” and they may get traction, especially if they hoover up some of talented people Twitter has let go recently. But is it worth investing the time in it?
No, really. Is it worth it?
I’m not a Luddite. I’m not barking at the kids to get off my lawn. I love tech. I love being very online. Whatever direction I take in 2023 (and it’s all up in the air at the moment), it will involve a big internet-focused component.
But must it include social media?
Don’t Let FOMO Drive Your Decisions
With so much turmoil and so many new options emerging, it’s easy to let Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO, take control. But again, really and truly, what are you missing out on?
Many of us feel like we’re eager to move on, to expand into new opportunities, to get on with living and flourishing again. We’re hungry for new opportunities and prone to worry about missing out on the next big thing.
When FOMO hits it’s worth asking: what do you really fear missing out on? Is it just the next new social media platform? Or is it something deeper, like making the most of the next stage in your life?
The Answer Is In The Work
It could be that Twitter’s woes are our collective blessing; a chance, instead of rushing into the next thing, to pause and ask ourselves what we want from these online para-social relationships.
And as we recalibrate our expectations we can also think about what we have to offer, the contribution we can make, to a better ecosystem of ideas and creativity.
Of course the best place to start is with our work, our real world relationships, and the quality of the life we live every day.
When I think about the times being on Twitter paid off me one thing is clear – those were the times when I had work to share and energy to spare.
Working on myself feels far more important right now than finding the next big thing in social media. Every new signup, every attempt to recreate my social graph somewhere else, is time I could spend doing the work.
Reset Before Engaging
A few years ago I wrote about going for an autumn walk around my Tokyo neighbourhood. People were going about their day and I walked past so many scenes of every day joy. Tokyo isn’t some kind of hedonistic paradise. But in most cases, if you walk around a city and look, you’ll see people enjoying themselves.
Went for a walk. Didn't see one angry person. Saw people smiling. Mothers walking with their kids. A couple holding hands. Co-workers sharing a joke. Old folks chatting. Neighbours saying hello.
Log onto twitter and…
— Fernando Gros (@fernandogros) October 3, 2017
The contrast when I logged onto Twitter was stark. Online life didn’t seem to be a good, or kind, or generous reflection of everyday life. Bad things happen, but in most of our lives they aren’t happening every day, relentlessly, forever.
For a few years now, social media has troubled me. In a way it’s always been troubling. Technology should make our lives better and simpler, not keep up perpetually distracted so our attention can be parceled and sold. That’s why I quit Facebook so long ago. It’s why I took breaks from Twitter over the years. It’s why I’ve quit other platforms as well.
Right now people are fleeing to Twitter alternatives with an evangelical zeal. They hope these platforms will be “better.” They blame Twitter’s algorithm for all the rage and hate. I guess that’s easier than analyzing all the billions of individual choices to contribute to the cultural catastrophe.
I’m not trying to absolve Twitter. The company made a string of bad decisions. But also, there’s an air of “the devil made me do it,” in the way many people describe their relationship to the platform.
The problem here really isn’t Musk or any of the other Twitter CEOs. It’s not the algorithm either. It’s that Twitter became a mirror. And we don’t like what we see. Sure, the mirror is distorted. Maybe even enchanted with dark magic. But, it’s still a mirror.