Twitter Is Our Future
What's happening to the entire media, in speeded-up time-lapse form.
This post is about the carnage at Twitter. No one can predict exactly what will come next. But here are my personal plans, plus an in-the-moment1 thought on What It All Means.
Will I keep using Twitter, as I have since its early days? For now and I hope for a while, yes. I explain the reasons below.
Will I pay even a modest sum to keep using a “blue check” that verifies my identity, which (along with most other journalists) I got almost automatically many years ago? For now and I think forever, no.
As many people have pointed out, verification exists not for the checkmark-holders’ benefit but for Twitter’s as a system. It helps readers know whether they’re really hearing from, say, Joyce Carol Oates, versus someone just masquerading or trolling. Twitter is only hurting itself if it takes the marks away, including from the 400,000 or so lesser figures like me who are now verified. If they want to remove mine because I won’t pay, no problem.2 Most other now-verified people apparently feel the same way.
Why am I mentioning this at all, given Twitter’s niche nature and the nonstop torrent of Twitter coverage? For me it’s because of the bellwether status for much larger groups of people who will need to find new media “homes,” as they’re driven from existing ones.
I think Twitter is a bellwether for two reasons.
One is that Elon Musk’s attempted destruction of Twitter, be it reckless or intentional, is worth seeing as a speeded-up version of what is happening in other parts of the media. Twitter is an outlier, and so is Musk. But because of the incredible haste of this process, the dismantling of Twitter is usefully clarifying about changes for the media as a whole.
The other is that there are “many” possible replacements for parts of the positive functions Twitter has offered. But there is no one clear, obvious, easily available, broadly comparable other place to go. It’s not like saying, “Oh, just get an Android” if you’re unhappy with Apple or iPhones. It’s more like saying: “We’re building a dam, so everyone has to move out of this town before the water gets too deep. Good luck staying in touch after each of you settles someplace else.”
Twitter is only 16 years old, so its own story demonstrates how rapidly new communities can emerge. My point is that Musk is forcing people to go through that process of search, reconnection, and reinvention. He says he is reconceiving online discussion with whatever he has in mind for Twitter. The real entrepreneurial effect may come from the wave of Musk-era Twitter exiles and refugees, among employees and users alike.
1) The Twitter takeover, as nature video.
We’ve all seen time-lapse nature videos, which compress into minutes action that takes months to unfold.
A seed goes into the ground. A few seconds later the first shoots poke through. Then the plant leafs out, blossoms, bears fruit. If it’s a perennial, it keeps going. If not, in the autumn it wilts and dies—all as you watch. The artificially speeded-up pace adds a logic and drama that are hard to notice at real-life speed.3
This is Elon Musk’s past week at Twitter. It is a time-lapse video of changes in the media, compressing into a few days changes that have been underway for years. The changes are of course technological and financial in origin. But the results—on TV, in magazines, in national news organizations, most dramatically in local publications—boil down to the fact that media communities, habits, and habitats are disappearing. The main variable is the speed.
When communities or habitats of any sort decline or are destroyed, there is usually no easy alternative for those who have been displaced. People who might have preferred to stay have to figure out somewhere else to go. That’s happening suddenly with Twitter. It has been happening for a while with other parts of the news establishment that, as I argued recently, are less and less matched to the realities of our times.
2) What is odd about Twitter.
It was never a mainstream platform. Nearly every journalist has relied on it. A lot of politicians, entertainers, “thought leaders,” corporations, and other public figures also use it to stay in touch with their audiences. But very few “normal” people have ever cared.4
As a business, it has lost much more money than it has earned.
As a social environment, it has always had grave problems. It’s a bad venue for “debate” or “discussion.” Someone was sure to construe your statement in the most selective and misleading way and then try to start a fight. You: “I like Candidate X.” Them: “So you’re saying, let’s kill everyone who disagrees.” These exchanges are why I almost never tried to “argue” on Twitter, and they are what the Block button is for.
You learned the hard way that sarcasm would never come across on Twitter, and that context rarely did. Twitter mobs have been a real thing. Every year or two, I’ve had one sicced on me, which was no fun – and I’m in the least vulnerable position, as an “established” (old) white man. I know many people so embittered by their Twitter exposure that they permanently signed off. And this doesn’t even count the incitement and disinformation.
In short, it’s been much easier to catalog what’s wrong with Twitter than what’s right.
But here is what has been right about it. As a source of information and connection, it’s 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. And as a platform, it benefitted from the management’s better-than-nothing attempts to screen out bigots, trolls, liars, and others who can easily turn an online forum into a “free-for-all hellscape,” as Elon Musk himself has put it.
For more than dozen years, I’ve gained much, much more from Twitter—in connections, suggestions, insights—than I’ve lost, via friction or frittering. This is what’s going away.
3) What is odd about Elon Musk.
Where do we start.
I have met, interviewed, emceed events with, and at one point liked him. He has gone through these Jekyll-and-Hyde cycles with many reporters, as Russ Mitchell has chronicled.
Nine years ago, his photo was on the cover of The Atlantic, and I wrote the main story for that issue, about technological breakthroughs in general. The story was based on an expert-survey of the greatest innovations since the wheel, and I think it stands up surprisingly well. It quoted Musk only once, which I find interesting in retrospect:
When I asked him what innovation he hoped to live long enough to see but feared he might not, he said, “Sustainable human settlements on Mars.”
At face value, every move Musk made at Twitter has seemed childish, willful, heartless5, and destructive, and seemed to reveal how little he grasps the difference between running a media organization and running an electric-car or rocket-ship firm. It’s like a rich football fan buying an NFL team and imagining that he can name draft-picks and call plays.
At least once an hour a new account appears of Musk’s hubris and self-destruction. A week ago we had Nilay Patel’s “Welcome to hell, Elon.” It has only gotten worse since then. Some people have argued that Musk doesn’t care about mere profit-and-loss and has a larger cosmic vision in mind. Others, that it’s a cynical ploy to disrupt for disruption’s sake —or to win favor with the Communist Party in China or the Republican Party in the United States.
We’ll know some day whether this has been genius or idiocy, arson or accident. For now we just know that he is burning the house down. And that he’ll still be rich.
They were careless people… they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness… and let other people clean up the mess they had made.6
4) Where does this leave people who have relied on Twitter?
Again, there aren’t that many of us. But I think most will try to hang on, until the water backing up behind the dam becomes too deep.
Will that moment come because of trolling? More vitriol and hate speech? Reputational queasiness about using this platform and being associated with Musk? I don’t know.
When it happens, there will be a range of new habitats.
There’s Mastodon, the open-source, decentralized system based in Europe, which you can read a good account of in this Gizmodo piece by Dell Cameron. The challenge is, it means starting from scratch to build a network and community. An excellent how-to primer is here, in a Twitter thread. I’ve opened an account. Update: Its address is https://journa.host/@JFallows . So far it is mostly a placeholder account.
There’s Substack, which you know about if you are reading this. My friend Hamish McKenzie explained its logic in a recent post here. I’m a believer, user, and fan.
There’s a range of other alternatives, which are well explained in this excellent Washington Post piece by Heather Kelly.
And there’s just bailing out, as Harold Meyerson recently argued. His conclusion:
“We are awash in viciously bigoted neofascist outbursts, and far from declining to give them wider distribution, Musk wants to let ’em rip. We don’t have to participate in such a venture. We need an alternative and we need to take a walk from his.”
But there won’t be any one convenient place. If there were, people would already have moved. As Harold Meyerson says, people “need” an alternative. But they don’t have one. Which will mean the tedious work of creating and promoting something new. Destruction can be quick and easy. They were careless people. Reinvention is hard and slow.
5) Where does this leave people who have relied on mainstream media?
That is also where I ended the previous dispatch: There is little point in continuing to call out leading publications for their “both sides” / “horserace uber alles” / “what does it mean for the midterms?” approach to our moment in history. This is who they are.
Calling out Merrick Garland? Yes. There is only one Justice Department. Nothing else can do its job. But for the media, the challenge is beginning the slow, hard work of creating something different and new.
If there were “an” answer to this problem, someone would already have suggested it. Instead — as with Twitter alternatives, but on a broader and more consequential scale — there will have to be many, and we’ll blunder and feel our way forward.
Highlighting, connecting, and trying to support this diverse “many” is one of my ongoing ambitions in this space.
For the moment I’ll mention just one of the many: Lion Publishers, for Local Independent Online News. This is where the future of news is being invented, city by city, one revenue-and-engagement model at a time.
These are the kind of entrepreneurs who deserve more attention. They—we—will be the ones to clean up the mess that careless people have made.
“In the moment” on return from a very long reporting trip, mainly in Iowa. More on that to come.
You can still get a pretty good idea of who-is-who from the Twitter profile that shows how long ago an account was started, how many followers it has, and what kinds of things it posts.
For instance: a Pew study this year found that 69 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook, and an amazing 81% use YouTube, versus 23% for Twitter.
For a contrasting illustration of how an also-rich, also-celebrated tech official can take personal responsibility for laying people off, see the letter from Patrick Collision, young phenom CEO of Stripe, announcing layoffs of 14% of the company’s entire staff.
For the record, these are of course the famous lines about Tom and Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby, written almost a century ago but relevant in every day of American history since then.