If you wanted to know what was happening in the hours after a crowd surged up the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, or after Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border on Feb 24, 2022, you might have kept one eye on the nearest television. But if it was your job to report on these stories, you almost certainly had at least one browser tab open on Twitter.
When Pew Research polled Americans in 2021 about their news habits, 23% reported using Twitter. Of those respondents, 69% reported using the site as a source of news, and 70% used Twitter as a place to follow breaking events. Pew didn’t specifically poll journalists, but if they had, the numbers might have been more like 100%, 100%, and 100%.
That’s because for more than a decade between its widespread rollout and its rapid decline, Twitter represented a concentration of news sources, journalists, and analysts that has never existed elsewhere on the internet. It was the place where a journalist might hint at a coming bombshell hours before it made the pages of any paper or triggered the breaking news music on television. It was also the go-to location for tracking down an expert on mRNA, or reading a step-by-step breakdown of complex legal documents.
Now Twitter is dying. The community that made it work is already fractured, actively seeking an alternative to what their former home has become. And as many turn to the question of what comes next, the most likely answer is: nothing.
Many people always hated Twitter—and for good reasons. The site was never far from being overrun by trolls and even the “friendly” side of Twitter had a level of biting snarkiness that was generally turned down to just below abusive. The community could seem snooty and jaded, the interface cold and confusing, the site administration both mysterious and arbitrary.
And that was in the good days.
As any of a dozen recent startups have readily demonstrated, the software behind Twitter is little more than trivial. An individual programmer can readily reproduce most of the site’s functionality in an afternoon. In fact, the whole thing originated as a brainstorming tool created for internal use at a podcasting company where college student Jack Dorsey worked. It wasn’t actually the result of just one programmer; there were two.
What Twitter had going for it was always just two things: brevity and moderation.
The short form of a Twitter post forced the author to pare thoughts down to the bare minimum. For many journalists, it became a regular exercise to take a paragraph of an article they wrote then hammer it into the confines of a single Twitter post to see what remained.
It was author Francine Prose whose instruction to writers was to “put every word on trial for its life.” On Twitter, those trials were conducted millions of times each day. The result was often news reports that were razor sharp, shorn of the embroidery of narrative. The number of superfluous and ultimately executed words was beyond counting.
Many users even worried that when the service changed the limit from 140 characters to 280 characters in 2017, it would “ruin Twitter.” They were almost right.
However, the same short-form necessity that made Twitter an ideal springboard for breaking news also shaped it into an perfect gun for firing misleading statements, malicious lies, and pure distilled hate. That’s where moderation came in.
Moderation was one of Twitter’s largest and most expensive components throughout its expansion. Those moderation efforts included thousands of people deliberately working to swat down overt calls for violence and outright doxxing. They also included community tools that raised alerts around hundreds of millions of messages each day, and a system of blue checkmarks that were awarded not just to celebrities with millions of followers, but to journalists and others who were recognized as trusted sources. All of that put together, on its best day, could barely stay ahead of the legions of bots, trolls, and neo-Nazis who constantly threatened to swarm the site and extinguish the “just barely tolerable” sign that glowed during the days of peak Twitter.
But for all its faults, moderation at Twitter does what it does everywhere: define community.
The loyal and tireless community at Daily Kos doesn’t exist because the software platform is unmatched (sorry, IT) or because the front page is constantly painted in tones of undimmed brilliance (sorry, me). The community exists because of moderation, both by the genuinely caring community team and the self-policing efforts that have worked for Daily Kos since they were introduced back in the Permian. They continue to give the site an unmatched gift: you.
At Twitter, they generated a community supersaturated with those who had news, made news, and shaped news. Of the more than 500 million people who used Twitter, that group probably never made up more than a fraction of a percent, but they gave Twitter an energy utterly unlike any other social media site.
That is until, of course, Elon Musk took control of the site in fall of 2022 and began systematically destroying moderation.
It wasn’t hard to see why Twitter’s board was so anxious to seal the deal with “the world’s richest man.” Musk opened his rarely controlled mouth and spat out a valuation that was far in excess of any reasonable price. That they would make him go through with it, even if it meant the sure and ultimate destruction of what they had built, falls under the obscure technical term of “business.” They got their $44 billion, left the room, and never looked back.
Immediately, Musk ripped out the teams that fought against the constant threat of racism, misogyny, and LGBTQ+ bigotry. Why? Because Musk’s middle school, still-dreaming-of-rough-sex-with-Dagny-Taggart idea of freedom is one where demeaning people for their race, sex, gender, or disability is cool.
Then he picked up the blue check marks that had worked as part of a system of protecting users from duplicate accounts and false news sources and sold them off at wholesale prices to duplicate accounts, false news sources, and Nazis—a lot of Nazis.
On any given day, it’s easy to find stories in which Twitter has acted as a center for spreading unwarranted hate and violence. It’s also easy to find stories in which Musk is a gleeful and active participant in putting the lives of innocent people at risk. It’s also not hard to find Musk peddling quack medical advice, promoting cryptocurrency pyramid schemes, or calling for a literal “dick measuring contest” with fellow social media billionaire tyrant Mark Zuckerberg (a call that looks very much like Musk trying to weasel out of a promised cage match with the CEO of Meta).
With each step down the Fury Road of senseless destruction, Twitter has shed users to other services. Formerly obscure “federated” platform Mastodon got an early boost and still looks highly attractive due to its largely billionaire-proof structure, though many who went to check out the service found this elephant a bit too shaggy when it came to its interface and the ability to find friends across its many servers. Others like Spoutible and CounterSocial mimic much of Twitter’s familiar look, but have so far failed to capture communities large enough to exert sufficient gravity. BlueSky, created by Twitter founder (and anti-vaccine woo woo) Jack Dorsey, would likely have been a contender months ago, but the team there has been deliberately slow-walking the growth of the platform with prospective users sent to a waitlist purgatory that can last months. Still, BlueSky is attractive because its ownership has been structured to protect it from the whims of its founder.
The biggest contender now—and the one that is very definitely siphoning users from Twitter as if the two were connected by a mile-wide hose—is Threads. Threads is for now limited to functioning on mobile devices, but since Threads is an outgrowth of the youth-friendly Instagram, it comes with a phone-minded audience at hand. It’s also similar enough to Twitter that Musk is already threatening a lawsuit as he watches the water in his pool get lower. And lower.
Twitter’s biggest days, the ones still powered by news of a fresh Trump indictment or Musk’s own rocket breaking up in the skies over Texas, are now unable to reach the traffic levels the site had on an average day at the beginning of the year.
NPR demonstrated the benefits of tough love after Musk thought it would be hilarious to label it a propaganda outlet, but for most of us, even in its obvious death spiral, Twitter remains a valuable source. It’s just that the value is declining, and that decline is accelerating with every statement made by Musk.
Do you remember when Musk was going to make someone else CEO of Twitter and allow her to run the show so he could step away from the platform and concentrate on other things? It’s okay, neither does Musk. He’s continuing to treat his $44 billion toy as a means of increasing the world’s already record-high levels of hate, intolerance, and dick jokes.
He’ll keep on doing so, moderating his giant site like it’s 8Chan, until he has a not-so-giant site with the same audience as 8Chan. Then he can clutch the little shriveled raisin of what remains and cackle over really owning all those libs. And now, dance time.
Vice.com has announced that Musk has just received a big endorsement for all his hard work reshaping Twitter into his own gnomish image.
Anas Haqqani, a Taliban thought-leader with family connections to leadership, has officially endorsed Twitter over Facebook-owned competitor Threads.
But before the Taliban thinks about bringing their operations to Twitter, they might want to check in on how things are working out for a similar purveyor of intolerance and leading advocate for violence, Tucker Carlson.
The famous conservative television personality launched a new show, Tucker on Twitter, which debuted in June with what appeared to be strong ratings. His first show garnered more than 26 million "video views," a Twitter metric that counts a view as anyone who watches a video for more than 2 seconds.
However, the tolerance for watching even two seconds of Tucker has rapidly decreased to the point where his most recent show ”only got 3.8 million video views.”
That puts Carlson’s “show” behind tweets from Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Greta Thunberg, and well behind a tweet from Musk threatening to put cocaine back into Coke, but at least Carlson beat out Musk’s joke about Zuckerberg’s penis.
Twitter is dying. We’ve all known it for months, the prognosis just keeps getting worse, and the wisest long ago packed their bags. Maybe BlueSky will finally throw open the doors and the old gang will reassemble there. Maybe Threads will get past a stated aversion to “politics and ‘hard news’” and recognize that these things can be as valid as beauty tips and celebrity gossip.
Probably neither of these things will happen. So far, Meta seems determined to do to Threads what it did with Facebook: retain strong control over how news is presented and made available. And the fact that my first attempt to sign onto the site generated offers to connect me with my niece, a chiropractor I visited for a brief time eight years ago, a realtor who bought one of my homes, and a company where I once ordered a desk for a previous employer doesn’t make me think much of their idea of “privacy.” BlueSky is missing key features like being able to send video. The company seems so growth-averse that five months after launch, it still has the feel of a test run.
Twitter will die. Social media will move on. And no one place will own that always-open tab spot for every journalist. But anyway, Elon can mutter to himself about how well he owned those libs. Hope it was worth it.