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"If you hate it so much, why are you on Twitter?"
I'm glad you asked. I have some thoughts.
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Just over ten years ago, a friend of mine convinced me to join Twitter. I have since forgiven him. Grudgingly. At least I think it was ten years ago. Maybe it was 9 or 12 or 40. Time ceased to exist upon the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. To the extent it does exist, time on Twitter ought to be counted in dog years. Anyway, he suggested it would be good for my career.
Twitter was, for a time, a lot of fun. Especially as a small account. As your account grows, the time becomes…less fun. You get more trolls. You get more spam. You get more hate. You develop beefs. You get angry. Notifications become hard to track and the whole thing becomes an utter mess. The fun doesn’t scale with growth growth. In fact, it recedes proportional to growth.
After Elon Musk took over, things got worse. The bots didn’t abate and the trolls certainly seemed to feel emboldened. Trending topics remain a terror: including lots of trolly nonsense, hate, and spam. Twitter reinstated previously-banned accounts—some of the worst sorts you’d ever hope not to meet. To the extent content moderation and policing of the terms of service ever existed, they got worse. Oh, and there is the Twitter Blue fiasco. Plus, the site itself kept on breaking, sometimes in new and exciting ways such as images not loading. And there’s lots more. But you know about that already. The upshot is I wondered if you could break something that never really worked. It turns out, you can.
A lot of us whinge about Twitter—often on Twitter—which seems paradoxical until you think about it for literally half a second. Twitter is a critical tool for many people, particularly writers and folks in the media. It is home to communities that people enjoy (but don’t enjoy seeing harassed). It is a major booster for work and a source for finding it and keeping it. It’s a central platform for news (especially breaking news), including public emergency information. It can be a useful way to network, research, learn, and even build friendships.
Twitter is part of the public sphere. A big one. But it’s in rough shape. In a recent podcast with McGill professor and media expert Taylor Owen, we talked about whether we could have a healthy digital public sphere and how we might bring that about. Things are not great. They’re toxic and polarizing in the worst way. But in an oligopolistic environment, many of us are drawn to and stuck in these spaces, like it or not. We complain about them because there are elements we enjoy and elements we require in an age in which online life dominates social, political, and economic ways of being in the world. But we are getting a raw deal from poor platform governance and the trash humans who exploit that.
We use Twitter because we like it. Because we need it. We complain about Twitter because it’s unnecessarily shitty. Or, rather, it’s shitty in the service of benefits for the few at the expense of the many. One source of that problem is ideology, a sort of right-wing techo-libertarianism suffused with a shitposting “I’m just asking questions” edge and vapid “anti-woke” sentiment. Privileged sorts don’t like to have their (unearned) privilege challenged. Rich tech sorts who think they’re god’s gift to bits and bytes don’t like to be questioned. So they lash out and we bear the brunt of it.
Another source of the problem is capitalism. Twitter exists to make money. It does so poorly. But that’s what it exists to do. Ditto Google. And Facebook. And Instagram (which also exists to make you hate yourself). Platforms make money by harvesting data, selling ads, cashing in on patents, and so forth. Core to their profit-generating strategy is to keep you connected to the site to push more ads and to collect more data (including, in certain cases, when you’re not on the site). To do so, these slot machines do whatever it takes to keep you hooked. For Twitter, a lot of that is a cycle of rage-baiting, response, counter-response, and repeat. That cycle plays on our lizard brains effectively but at great cost to our well-being. Another reason we remain on Twitter is that we are hopelessly addicted—by design.
Leaving Twitter might be good for productivity and mental health, but it comes at cost. There’s a social cost as one leaves community behind. There’s a career, and thus economic, cost, as the platform is a big part of getting work done (even as it serves as a source of procrastination). Of course, you can reduce the time you spend there, which is what I’m trying to do. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. But the structure of the thing is designed to militate against efforts to scale back screen time. So, it’s a struggle.
There’s no single solution to the tensions and challenges platforms produce while they serve as components of the digital public sphere and community/career hubs. More (shared) regulation is critical. Breaking up oligopolies could help, too. I’m not convinced things are going to get better any time soon. They may get worse. But any solutions we work on ought to start with an understanding of why we all show up to these spaces over and over again.