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It’s sometimes hard at this time of year to separate the shortening days and waning green from the sense of an imminent seismic shift, the consequences of which are not yet clearly visible – especially after a few years of seismic shifts coming upon us alarmingly are regularity.
The dismantling of Elon Musk’s Twitter, for example, was brought to the attention of the 77 percent of Americans who don’t use the platform by the overly vocal 23 percent of Americans who do. It seems to be either Musk’s blessing or curse that this particular “public space,” as Twitter may have been wistfully dubbed, has become so central to the lives of the people who could protest its destruction loudest, journalists. Semafor, the news agency recently started by Ex New York Times Media columnist and BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith stated majestically, “Twitter is perhaps the most important company in the world story of news.” Journalists struggled to declare their affection for the site they had long mocked, even as their eyes remained glued to the screen. As James Fallows put it, Twitter “had the virtues of old-style blogging, or even old-style reader mail, with much greater breadth and immediacy. Tips and insights from a variety of sources, connections you might not have made otherwise, a real-time sensory network for breaking news.”
Brent Staples argued that Twitter has forced journalism to be more accountable to formerly marginalized audiences. Reporter Olivia Messer and publishing observer Jane Friedman described how important the site, even its internal news system, was to their visibility as young writers—in Messer’s case, even to dating prospects. It was an effective medium for shock-mongers to amplify their message precisely because journalists lurked there so obsessively, projecting the world they found there so reliably back to us as our own. Critic Bob Lefsitz recently wrote with searing sarcasm that journalists are saddened by the possible demise of Twitter because they have lost touch with their audience and don’t know who they’re talking to when they’re not there talking to each other. In retrospect, it might seem that Twitter, like Napster, offered what seemed great at the time at an unbearable price. The company had only made money a year into its existence, and there seems to be a remote possibility that Musk actually has any idea how to make it work as a company, though there’s likely no answer to those writers’ aspirations.
Is Twitter dead?
While engineers familiar with the problems that arise in very large complex systems when not properly maintained call the end of Twitter under Musk’s unpredictable rule imminent, veteran tech watchers warn that if it does end is likely to be extended. even if important participants threaten to leave. CBS News announced it would be leaving the platform Friday night, only to be back by the end of the weekend as Donald Trump and Kanye West’s accounts, which had been banned for violating Twitter’s terms of service, were permanently restored. Macy’s stopped advertising the Thanksgiving Day parade, advertising giant Omnicon advised clients to stop spending on Twitter, and Group M deemed it a “high risk” to brand safety. On Sunday, it emerged that Twitter’s copyright system was down, apparently allowing unlimited distribution of copyrighted material. Musk’s only identifiable product innovation, which allowed users to purchase identity verification, led to a spate of scams and scammers and had to be banned indefinitely.
It’s interesting to me that many of the alternatives to Twitter being put forward by denizens of the media world are moving away from Twitter’s high-speed nature and towards more conscious forms of reading and intentional ways of collecting. People are talking again about blogs and RSS feeds and news aggregators and closed loops of communication like group chats and Discord servers. The most recommended replacement site, the open-source non-profit platform Mastadon (described here), has a longer character limit and is praised by enthusiasts for its more thoughtful tone. Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of our own newsletter platform Substack, wrote of the demise of Twitter: “We believe the next era of the social web will be about deep connections, not shallow engagement; signal over noise; and” referring to the fact that social media sites like Twitter sell ads on top of your gratuitous intellectual property, “property over serfdom.” Critic Ted Gioia cited statistics of declining social media engagement and argued that slow reading, like his Sicilian grandmother’s cooking, is making a comeback. Max Read wrote: “There is much to celebrate at the prospect of freeing journalism and publishing from a worldview molded by the rewards and dangers of a hard-fought reputational economy.”
For those of us starting small media organizations, Twitter was certainly the most effective way to reach readers, especially since Facebook limited organizational account opportunities and focused (allegedly) on “friends and family” and videos. Illustrator Bree Lundberg was among many who said: “Please, please, if you’re thinking of leaving Twitter as it’s being sold to you-know-who, tag the websites/shops and subscribe to artist newsletters that you like!! We’re going for social media for freelancers and sales, don’t forget us.” Also, Twitter was finally a word-based medium—it was attracting word-centric customers. As Alex Madrigal tweeted, the lawsuit over the loss of Twitter is justified by the authors’ concerns “about our diminishing relevance in an internet that has become largely visual, with an accompaniment of audio.” Unlike TikTok and Instagram, Twitter can “link” to longer-form writing, where ideas can grow beyond 280 characters.
Everyone wants to be TikTok
While all social media makers are chasing TikTok’s viral video-based algorithmic feed like their own Pied Piper, the written word on the world’s devices is getting shorter and shorter. In July, parent company Meta suspended Facebook’s once-vaunted contracts to compensate (somewhat) news-gathering organizations for content provided by users, in exchange for which the platform sells ads. “Most people don’t come to Facebook for news,” a spokesperson bluntly said in an email statement, “and as a company, there’s no point investing too much in areas that don’t align with user preferences.” In a related decision, Press Gazette reported earlier this month that by 2024, Facebook would remove the fifteen journalists currently responsible for curating its “News” tab and replace them with artificial intelligence. This comes amid reports that while Facebook wrestles with a way to meet calls to suppress misinformation, the AI it tries to hand off such work to is constantly downgrading the real news by the fake.
Advertising’s role in determining what we see has looked more benign than usual in recent weeks – Musk can’t alienate advertisers, his main source of income, too much with a toxic platform – but sociologist Zeynep Tufecki reminds us that this Ultimately, advertising’s deepest need is — keep your eyes on the screen — that feeds the dangerous algorithmic incentive to deliver content that quickens our pulses and fuels friction. Meta’s big bet on virtual reality is also a move away from words and handcrafted messages towards spontaneous, real-time experiences. As most tech companies tighten their belts and lay off employees (over 10,000 from Amazon; 11,000 from Meta, or 13 percent of its workforce; 1,200 from Snap, 20 percent of its workforce; in addition to Twitter’s famed now 4,800, nearly two-thirds of its workforce ), video sharing TikTok is ending.