What Twitter was, what Twitter could have been, what Twitter is

As much as I tried to resist the end, I had a breaking point, and the breaking point was this.

Tweet from Elon Musk: "My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci" December 11, 2022.

The tweet just had it all – it was a remarkable intersection of bullying, malicious, and callous. Bullying comes first, of course, because any tweet targeting an individual from Twitter’s 44-billion-dollar overlord will have the impact of focusing the masses against that individual. Malicious, because that individual has been the epitome of selfless service in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, at a time where we need more selfless service and not less; when we attack the public-minded, people’s willingness to think of the public atrophies. And then callous, because trivializing people’s use of pronouns to clarify their identity takes the marginalized and shoves them further to the margins.

Elon Musk is a lot of things. A responsible leader is not one of them.

And if this is what engagement looks like on Musk’s Twitter, then I’m out.

As I’ve struggled with this reflection on the Twitter Era of my life – and make no mistake, it was a pretty extensive and defining era, and it’s now done – I have drawn very little on the very naïve and very rose-colored celebration of what I discovered in mid-2013. That was only halfway through a very fateful year, and I hadn’t yet tapped the power of the networks that wove their way through that very extensive social media website.

I am going to start here instead: if I hadn’t discovered Twitter and the people within it in 2013, I very likely would have been out of academia within a year, maybe two.

When Virginia Intermont failed, I tried to find a position through my tried-and-true methods, and I went 0-for-every-attempt. There is something about the stench of failure attaching itself to you when you leave one (doctrinal, fundamentalist) institutional collapse for another (financial, managerial) institutional collapse. I had a very steep climb to present my CV as representing somebody who was successful at what he did and who could make an institution be successful in kind.

Somehow or another, in my first fitful days of using Twitter seriously, my Twitter feed told another story about me than Shorter’s exodus or Virginia Intermont’s bankruptcy. Somehow, through a connection with an old friend, somebody in the Tennessee Tech physics department followed that Twitter feed, and when the time came, amazed that I was somebody who was available and who could do a job for a place.

Word passed from professor to chair, and I didn’t just have a job, but a teaching experience that changed me and made me more effective in the classroom. And I had an instant positive reputation when I stepped on campus.

When Twitter worked for those of us in higher education, that’s how it worked. It was scholarship that was accessible, it was framing that was positive, it was a presence that connected in ways obvious and subtle. It was the best possible edit on the type of scholar I envisioned myself being; it was a way to bring what I did in the classroom in front of the widest audience.

The years of 2013, 2014 and 2015 were absolutely incredible for me. Even as I lived through the collapse and failure of one institution, I found that I had supporters in places I could never have imagined, cheerleaders of the sort I would have never dreamed. Twitter put those heroes in my life in place. I will forever be grateful.

The reality I’m facing now is that I tried to hang on to a time of ignorant bliss in my use of social media, and I tried to hang on to that for at least six years beyond its sell-by date – if I’m being generous.

It was ignorant bliss because, as in so many things, I had it easy as a straight white dude. I never got the tiniest measure of harassment because of my use of Twitter, and I was able to find my voice on my own terms without being shouted down because of one thing or another.

There are plenty of anecdotes you could choose from, but they all point to the same place: people who are marginalized in academia are likely to experience harassment on platforms like Twitter, and as much as we may want to use those platforms to amplify others’ experience, all they wind up amplifying are the avenues through which they receive hate.

Some people work through that, and I marvel at that. In so many ways, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s continued presence on the platform will keep me from turning away from Twitter entirely; she used the site brilliantly before I showed up, and she may well keep using the site brilliantly after I go. But as I’ve gone through the last few years of my career, I find myself turning more and more away from the voices I see and wondering more and more about the voices that I’m missing.

What was at once powerful, dangerous and ultimately ill-fated about Twitter was its capacity, because of its open nature, to amplify voices the American white male would have otherwise never heard. #BlackTwitter was a total revelation to me because I heard such a different edit on the experience of “Western civilization” from anything I’d ever been taught. I heard hints of experience from other cultures, from other places in the world, from communities I would have never imagined resonance with. If you read, and you were intent, you learned, even in bursts of 140 characters at a time.

One of the fundamental elements of that education is that any step back that the experience of white males in America took would be something that was received as oppression. In retrospect, it is the starkest of coincidences that my experience of Twitter’s ideality aligned with the end of the Obama presidency, and the noxious backlash that was the rise of Trump.

The tempting thing is to say that Trumpism was the poison that ruined Twitter, and the one odious man unleashed powerful forces that ultimately served to undermine healthy dialogue and make the website unusable. But again, if I said that, it would be from a place of privilege, as a person who never experienced the harassment that made the site unusable for so many from the onset. The forces were there all along; they were merely made more visible in 2016.

Tressie called it herself, long before the election, even before a single primary had been contested.

Tweet from Tressie McMillan Cottom: "but it's important, I think, that we know that we always have in us the impulse to elect a President Trump. Always." January 28, 2016.

Connecting the political realities that gave us 2016 to the failures of Twitter is at once a stretch and completely obvious. Those realities made social media a maddening place to engage.

So many of us chose to continue to engage, even when the toxicity emerged above the surface. Most of us who made that choice connected to a time when Twitter worked for us, and Twitter delivered news, networking, and notability in a fashion that other social media simply couldn’t. Twitter was broadcast media at a bite-sized scale, and even when the 5G signal to your phone weakened to 3G or maybe even no-G, when other social media failed, you could still get Twitter updates. The phone app was absolutely killer compared to other social media. When a breaking news event happened, it was the closest thing to monoculture I’ve experienced in adulthood; it felt like the entire world was sharing the happening with you, in real time.

All these little benefits outweighed the toxicity and the undercurrent of racism, prejudice and hate fueling the platform and lurking ever closer to the surface. The connection with the whole world (or at least my little conception of the whole world) was just too attractive to overcome.

I had the option to cut out of Twitter in 2016, when Mastodon began and I discovered like-minded people on that platform (both Twitter castaways and those who could never access Twitter) that I could engage with at length, at a level of depth that I could never achieve on Twitter. Even at 280 characters, there’s only so much depth you can plow. I was able to use the platform and the format of Mastodon to do deeper thinking and deeper connection, but with a smaller range of people.

I engaged fully and fruitfully on Mastodon for about eight months. I never left Twitter. I gave Twitter more and more of my time again. Ultimately, I quit using Mastodon entirely.

The alternate edit to my social media life is what it would look like if I’d broken my ties with Twitter, remained on Mastodon and engaged fully on the networks there – who I might have discovered with the time and patience invested, how my social media practice might have evolved instead of fractured, what I might have invested more fully in. Mastodon, it is clear in retrospect, was fully worthwhile. There are people in moderating roles over the open-source social network who are deeply interested in cooperating with one another to maintain safety in the space, to make room for all voices to engage in a conversation.

As the Musk takeover of Twitter loomed, I found myself taking up a long-forgotten space on Mastodon anew – much more slowly and much more intentionally this time. I had to settle myself that Mastodon was not broadcast media, and never would be. I had to settle myself that I was going to join a smaller community, and take benefit from engaging with that community, rather than using that community to amplify my voice loudly. I had to recognize that the community wasn’t just going to sustain itself on a billionaire’s largesse or Wall Street compromises, and I had to actually put forward resources to sustain that community myself.

Instead of just using somebody else’s space, I had to help make it work for the community.

These are lessons I should have learned long ago.

There is a pipe dream that I still have that Twitter, as a company, long before the fait accompli that was the Musk takeover, would have learned lessons about what excluded people from the platform and made a more safe space for a wider variety of people.

To do that would have required humility from the white men who have been the primary movers behind Silicon Valley from day one. It would have involved admitting that other people can see the problems with Twitter more vividly and more expansively than they could with their own eyes. It would have involved taking real and tangible guidance from people from different cultures, people from literally around the world, who could see a better, healthier way forward.

It would have meant forsaking a little bit of engagement, a little bit of venom, for something more vibrant to take root.

But that isn’t the way that this culture works. And Twitter is presently hollowing itself out to become an echo-chamber shell of its former, vital self.

So this famous tweet becomes the epitaph. No other way to end my time on Twitter than repeating this. For just a little bit of humility, the internet could be a better place.

Tweet from @actioncookbook: "USERS: we love twitter but it has problems TWITTER: great we'll fix them USERS: do you want to know what they are TWITTER: absolutely not" January 5, 2016.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.