Of Twits and Turns

Twitter is entering its end phase. Probably. It might make it through the early messy stages of the Elon Musk era and find some new stability, anything is possible, but it doesn’t seem likely. Life-integrated services like Twitter exist most importantly in the perceptions of users, as an idea we hold on to; that idea has curdled. I think it’s slowly making the journey to the elephant’s graveyard, like G Plus and Livejournal and MySpace and Bebo did before it. And it makes me sad.

Twitter is special. Yes, everyone regularly calls it a hellsite, and not in an affectionate way; it has damaged important things. But it also offers some wonders that can’t really be replicated anywhere else. I think they’ll be just gone. And yes, that’s okay, because nothing should last forever, but it makes me sad.

I joined twitter in March 2009 (and promptly blogged about it), when it was a couple years old and just leaning into its biggest growth curve. It took a while to become an essential part of my daily media diet: December 2009 it was “an ongoing conversation which I dip into from time to time” and a year later “I don’t tweet much, and when i do it’s mostly just to say I’ve blogged“. But I kept coming back, cultivating my feed, and increasing my engagement with it, until now when Twitter has become a fundamental tool I use to see the world.

The core of twitter is the feed, an endless scroll of snackable comments. It’s a bit like one of those cutaway drawings of a huge building or an enormous ship; as I scroll I see glimpses into dozens of ongoing conversations, lots of different moments happening all at once. I always love those cutaway drawings!

(An aside: throughout twitter’s history the feed has been a battleground. Twitter has tried various ways to make the feed serve their engagement metrics, which ends up with the service sticking random provocative stuff in front of you, showing stuff wildly out of order based on its guesses about what will be most exciting, and hiding content from people you indicated you want to follow because the algorithm reckons it’s boring. Only recently did Twitter finally concede and allow a simple chronological feed, which is by far my preference. But most people don’t jump through the hoop of figuring out the chronological feed; Twitter’s algorithm retains huge power over what gets seen and what doesn’t.

A frustrating example: Twitter has always downgraded or buried outbound links. It doesn’t want users leaving the site, so the algorithm hides them. It’s honestly an embarrassing and cowardly strategy, one shared by Facebook, which does exactly the same thing. The internet is made of links!)

The fundamental conflict in Twitter exists between the feed, friends and interesting accounts I have curated into an ongoing scroll of things I care about, and the swarming fools and villains who want to disrupt it and devour my attention. Call them locusts. They have been out of control since 2016. The dismal chaos of that year didn’t just depress everyone, it also marked a huge and continuing surge in locust behaviour, from Trump fans, Russian-operated false accounts, and ordinary everyday dickheads.

After 2016, it seemed like Twitter was always agitated. There was a lot of heat everywhere in the system, and things boiled over quickly. This continues to this day, as anti-democratic forces and those aforementioned dickheads eagerly increase friction and stoke rage wherever they can, using a playbook first honed in the horrible Gamergate mess, such as overloading replies and weaponising context collapse. This also makes non-locust users less tolerable, as tempers run hot, the attention economy contracts, and people chase engagement with self-aggrandizing performative rage that gives the algorithm exactly what it wants.

Even as Twitter became a constant warzone, with the feed eternally besieged by the locusts, and clout-chasers amassing large followings for truly annoying behaviour, I stayed. Twitter offered things I loved, even then. Its enormous reach and its pulsing concern with the moment remained undimmed. Its borderless interconnectivity brings the network effect to brilliant life, as ideas surge at incredible speeds across the frictionless flat plain of users. It is the channel of choice for information: journalists and scientists and pundits all make their home there. It was, and probably still is, the best way to take a sounding on what matters out there in the world. When there is a new development in climate science or politics, the climate people in my feed are busy with thoughts and responses; when domestic politics takes a surprising turn, my local political people are all over it; when major news unfolds anywhere, everyone takes note, and good resources quickly filter through the feed.

Twitter’s enormous scale also allowed rich subcultures and subcommunities to thrive, and the flat plain of connectivity allows that richness to surface into my feed regularly in countless unpredictable ways. Feminist Twitter, Black Twitter, Irish Twitter, Indigenous Twitter, Native American Twitter, Trans Twitter, African Twitter, and of course Māori Twitter and Pasifika Twitter are all thick networks full of human interaction, and I quickly understood when encountering them that the best thing to do was shut the hell up and pay attention. To say that my decade-plus on the bird site has been life-changing is to undersell it; I have been profoundly transformed by the privilege of witnessing up-close the conversations, concerns, arguments, jokes, celebrations and fury of communities of which I am not part. I’ve learned a huge amount, and I can honestly say I don’t know how else I could have learned so much.

Still, it’s undeniable that the public square of Twitter has become generally unpleasant. As a general trend for some time, users have been moving into “dark forest” spaces, away from public view, where “depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments“. Discords and Slacks are where many people spend their online energy these days, in an echo of the old internet forum days. (And some of the old big forums are still standing, hey big purple!) The current Musk crisis has led to crowds trying out Mastodon, which is similar to Twitter but instead of being an endless flat plain, it’s more like an enormous collection of community valleys separated by hills. The flow between and across them is slowed. This is intentional! For one thing, that open plain of Twitter suited the locusts beautifully, and Mastodon doesn’t want them. It is not a one-to-one replacement for Twitter, but a reimagined experience, intended as a more considerate, thoughtful, friendly, and local space. I am enjoying the energy among Kiwi Twitter migrants, and it seems there’s enough momentum for Mastodon to become an established community. Find me at @morgue@mastodon.nz

(I recall that I originally joined Mastodon in 2017, on an instance that is long gone, and whose domain name now redirects to, er, adult content. It didn’t have that critical mass of users then. It sure seems to now!)

In any case, I’m not walking out on Twitter yet. I have connections there that don’t exist in any other medium, and probably can’t. I value the good aspects of this enormous, vexing, variable service. I’ll be there as it copes with these new challenges, and I do expect it’s a death watch. Already it feels different; locusts everywhere, and the main topic of conversation how it’s all coming to an end.

I hope Musk loses interest soon, and I hope Twitter survives. If it doesn’t, I’ll miss it. At the very least I’ll post about it on Facebook.

(Also, there was that time pre-fame Brett Goldstein said to me, “hope you’re well”, so. Twitter was good sometimes.)