There aren’t many tech sites more conservative or investment focused than TechCrunch. But that doesn’t mean they think much of how billionaire Elon Musk has handled his $44B investment in a company that he now personally values at $20B. In fact, the view from the investor ranks aligns very closely with that of many users sitting in the cheap seats—Musk has destroyed his investment, and he’s done it so well, and so quickly, that his actions are indistinguishable from those of someone whose core goal was to make Twitter go away.
It almost doesn’t matter if this is deliberate sabotage by Musk or the blundering stupidity of a clueless idiot. The upshot is the same: Twitter is dying.
Twitter is not TikTok. It’s not Facebook. And it’s not Daily Kos. It’s not hard to determine why some people have always hated the service. It’s also not hard to see how, as Musk burns away everything of value, it’s getting harder for anyone, outside of Russian propagandists and violent white nationalists, to justify their continued presence on the platform, or the use of Twitter as an information source.
But it will get easier. Because Elon Musk has gotten out one of his ridiculous flame throwers, and he is burning away every last scrap of what gave Twitter value. Saying that “Twitter is dying” is really underselling it; death implies something natural, the result of disease or age. Twitter is being murdered.
Twitter was unique. Not in its microblogging platform, which is trivial. Not in it’s capacity to handle the kinds of items appearing on other social media networks, which was intentionally stunted. It was unique precisely because the enforced brevity of Twitter insisted that users get to the heart of things, and encouraged those who might normally hide behind a press release and a PR department to speak bluntly.
It was always easy to hate Twitter. Because there was always plenty to hate. However, it was as Tech Crunch notes, “a go-to source for journalists or other curious types wanting to earwig on conversations between interesting people—whether subject experts or celebrities.” Speaking personally, that’s meant exchanging messages with nurses working in emergency rooms during the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, being able to question astronauts about to launch to the ISS, and hearing from soldiers using their phones from a trench near Bakhmut.
The real pull and power of the platform came from the incredible wealth of knowledge any Twitter user could directly tap into—across all sorts of professional fields, from deep tech to deep space and far beyond—just by listening in on a discussion thread or sliding a question into someone’s DMs.
Notice that none of this “pull and power” exists in the software. It exists in the information shared by the Twitter community.
That ability to form connections, as well as to put your ideas out there in the most concentrated, unfiltered, and immediately broadcast form, had a value that pulled in people interested in every possible topic, or in nothing more than sitting on the corner, listening to the buzz. Twitter was never the platform for everyone, and even at its moderated best, participating in Twitter could be, as Tech Crunch notes, a “bruising” experience. It was always easy to ridicule. It deserved it. But the value of the community was real.
Those who expected Twitter to grow into a be-all-end-all platform were always going to be disappointed. Even the original founders and executives at Twitter never seemed to get that they couldn’t graft functionality from Facebook, TikTok, or Instagram onto the side of what they had made and expect it to flourish.
Twitter, by its nature, insists on a different kind of social interaction, one that was far more emergent than planned. As the user base grew, so did its value as an information pipeline. When there were enough users on the platform using it to share breaking news and insights into current stories, Twitter gained an immediacy and impact that was far more than the sum of its parts. The resulting community of users and the relationships they built has incredible value. Maybe not $44B. But, a lot.
Only Musk is taking every action imaginable to unwind that community, sever those connections, and convert Twitter into the kind of backslapping white-supremacist bulletin boards already all too available elsewhere. That even includes such inane acts as removing the platform’s length limits, removing the one thing that definite its model of interaction.
Since Musk took over he has set about dismantling everything that made Twitter valuable—making it his mission to drive out expertise, scare away celebrities, bully reporters and—on the flip side—reward the bad actors, spammers and sycophants who thrive in the opposite environment: An information vacuum.
Even with Twitter reduced to what the article calls “an echo-y shell of its former self,” it is still hard to pull away from the site and the remaining community. However, for those having difficulty breaking away, Musk is making it easier. His actions so far have been directed at protecting and elevating disinformation. Now he’s making it more difficult to find and validate actual information. There’s an un-critical point in there somewhere; a status where it’s no longer worthwhile to bang around on Twitter to find what remains. Be sure that Musk will find it.
Facts may have a liberal bias, but that’s okay if no one can see the facts.
Of course, there are plenty of people of people eager to point out that Twitter hasn’t died yet. So clearly, predictions of doom are unwarranted. It’s all fine here, says the dog in a burning cafe. Plenty also sneer at every such article on Twitter’s decline using the argument, “Then why haven’t you stopped using it?”
The reason may be surprising; it’s not that there are no good alternatives, it’s that there are too many.
Mastodon has the benefit of no central controlling force, so no one will become the Musk of the whole “Fediverse.” However, that means almost everyone who steps up to run a Mastodon server is buying into the need to support that server’s technical needs, and deal with their community’s moderation requirements, with essentially no outside assistance and no means of generating revenue from their server. It’s decentralized, yes. Is it sustainable? That’s not clear.
Still, it is generating a lot of new users, and even though the means of building connections and generating conversation have higher barriers than on Twitter, it seems to be the one platform nearest the point where it can sustain a critical mass of conversation. Other alternatives, like Post or Hive or any of half a dozen others, simply haven’t gained the necessary level of support to make them viable for the one thing that made Twitter special. Hopefully, one of them will get there, and then word will get around about the new water hole in the desert.
Maybe one of them will cross that threshold in the next few months. If so, it won’t be because it adds some great technological trick or super-rich interface. Twitter never had those things. In fact, those things are likely anathema to generating a good Twitter replacement. A good replacement should be stripped down, invisible, effortless, and continue the constraints that stopped Twitter posts from exploding to novel length. It also needs to be well moderated to prevent it from becoming a place to peddle megavitamins, spread trans hate, and Putin’s latest claims.
That site may appear in time to catch falling Twitter users. It may not. In the meantime, people will continue to wander the emptying halls of Twitter, picking up the loose sheets still drifting through what was, ignoring both the Nazis and the “it’s all fine” crowd. All of it lit by the flames of $44B being used as kindling.
If the point is simply pure destruction—building a chaos machine by removing a source of valuable information from our connected world, where groups of all stripes could communicate and organize, and replacing that with a place of parody that rewards insincerity, time-wasting and the worst forms of communication in order to degrade the better half—then he’s done a remarkable job in very short order. Truly it’s an amazing act of demolition. But, well, $44 billion can buy you a lot of wrecking balls.
Sign the petition: Denounce Elon Musk’s tyrannical takeover of Twitter
It's just barely springtime in an off year, but there's been loads of election news lately, so co-hosts David Nir and David Beard have a super-sized roundup on this week's episode of The Downballot. The Davids recap the first round of voting in the race for Jacksonville mayor (which saw Democrats do unusually well) and the collapse of an effort to recall New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell before turning to big batch of 2024 updates.
On tap for the Senate: The GOP's desperate effort to compete with Democratic fundraising enthusiasm by recruiting self-funders; why Republicans are afraid the guy who succeeded John Boehner in Congress will try to challenge Sherrod Brown; and how Democrats' plans to clear the field in Michigan may not succeed. Plus developments in the battle for New Hampshire's governorship, a key House seat in Wisconsin, and the saga of Tennessee's answer to George Santos.