"Farewell to the forests and the wild hanging woods. Farewell to the torrents, and the loud pouring floods."
How does one even eulogize something as slithery – and necessary – as Twitter?
This week’s soundtrack: Sightless Pit- “The Ocean of Mercy”
A few weeks ago, Elon Musk eliminated the “legacy” verified Twitter statuses of most of us with the ol’ blue check mark (me included). My status – if you can call it that – was via my work at GovExec, though I don’t think anyone was really going to impersonate me online like a certain ex-baseball manager with a drinking problem. Algorithm aside (which, obviously, is very stupid because the whole thing runs on the algorithm), the check was a sort of Q rating for online-brained people; it gave some measure of oomph to your little space on this weird social media network, even if you were – like me – a guy with a very niche level of “expertise.” Its hard-to-define nature – YouTube celebrities got it, but are they expert in anything other than fame? Actors got it, but do you really care what they have to say? – made the check an object of derision, but it was supposed to be something of value. Ed Zitron wrote it well recently:
The blue checkmark was a status symbol as well as a form of verification. If you got one, it said that you were you, but also that you were “somebody,” even if the way in which it was handed out was extremely capricious and vague. It was “cool” because it wasn’t for everybody — fair or not — and meant that you had to achieve something, even in some small way, and get noticed by a specific person or group of people. One could not outright buy it. At least, not officially. You had to do something, even if that something was dumb, that made you “important enough.”
That changed when the whole Twitter Blue thing became a priority for Musk and it got even weirder when it came out that Musk was paying for Twitter Blue for a bunch of accounts.
As everything has since he took over, stuff starting getting out of hand when it was reported later that Twitter is verifying accounts with certain follower numbers… including lots of very dead people.
It’s all the dying breaths of a social media network that is slowly unraveling. But, it’s also an opportunity to eulogize something that’s been far too much a part of my life for too long.
What was Twitter? What is Twitter?
Twitter, like the Internet , is vast and it means a lot of different things to different people. For me – this is, after all, my newsletter with my name on it – Twitter has been, first and foremost, a repository of connection through jokes. Most of those jokes have a tinge of nihilistic detach; they drip with sarcasm and lament over the world we inhabit. But, they are jokes nonetheless. The best at making these jokes often take aim at the powerful or the absurd or, more likely, some combination of both.
Mostly, though, it was a global conversation. Unlike Facebook or Instagram or other more gated places, Twitter was a deluge of people talking and talking and talking. I used to compare it to a busy Metro platform where you could overhear a million conversations at once; most were very stupid, but some were exceptionally funny. But, in this case, you’re waiting for the subway along with celebrities and the funniest people online. And, unlike the subway platform, you can maybe join the conversations. I’ve met friends on Twitter who I’ve later hung out with in physical space and I’ve had thousands of people send condolences to me when my beloved Chloe died (Twitter is not alone here, but my love for the pet Internet knows no bounds).
Willy Staley has a must-read eulogy in the Times about the death of Twitter. Every word is great, but this paragraph was mostly what inspired today’s newsletter.
Twitter is both short-form and fast-moving, which together make it feel conversational. Like all conversations, it’s highly context-dependent, and like all good conversations, it’s guided by the pleasure principle. That’s what makes it fun: Who doesn’t want to be the person who can make everyone laugh at a dinner party? But Twitter also puts your dinner-party remarks in front of people who were not invited to the dinner party, showing them exactly how little you considered them before chiming in. And, of course, no one involved is having fun at a dinner party at any point in this process; everyone is, like you, probably alone, on the computer, experiencing the feeling we used to know as boredom.
The fun days were the best. Everyone has a different definition of the “best day on Twitter,” when people were popping off jokes – often at the expense of someone like former President Donald Trump. The hogs. The former president getting indicted. Pretty much any time Musk does something else stupid.
I often use the phrase “my brain was ruined by the Internet” when talking about my use of things like Twitter (and Substack, I guess). The addiction of social media is well-examined – The Social Dilemma is a good place to start – and I count myself among those who are fully chasing the dopamine dragon of likes, replies and such. Twitter, because I am a journalist, has been my drug of choice since I joined in 2008 and it is unique in that it carved out a repository for other stuff. The best of the other social networks ended up on Twitter. Jokes, videos, memes, whatever. When people talked about “going viral,” it usually meant Twitter.
I, thankfully, will never go viral. I’m neither insightful nor funny enough to do so. But, I’m also not someone brazen enough to participate in the attention economy in any real way. I’ve softened in middle age, in that I’ve no interest in saying something stupid and then standing by it. I’ve gotten into a few minor arguments on Twitter – one about the concept of “yucking someone’s yum,” which I deeply regret – but I mostly just say fairly asinine things that other people already know or I try to offer a tiny bit of insight into something. Most of the time, I’m tweeting about my dog or Metallica.
Which is to say, I’ve not really getting seriously dunked on. Dunking is one of the major – think of someone absolutely obliterating an opposing player at the rim – worries on Twitter; the big-brained types who glamorize free speech for themselves (but not others) think dunking is piling on or abuse or whatever. It’s kind of just a stupid fun thing that, like most stupid fun things, can be abused by those with greater power.
But, ultimately, Twitter is about the weird communities that spring up from it. Weird Twitter – which, full disclosure, is partially made up of college friends of mine and some early forum posters I followed – grew and became the greatest part of the network. My brain being ruined by the Internet is also because I see an American flag or Betsy Ross’ name and think “buddy, they wont even let me fuck it.” The Grinch isn’t the Grinch for me, but rather the Grink, thanks to the greatest tweet ever tweeted. The Shoe Roast is a classic. In some cases – the Go Off Kings really hit this – Weird Twitter is like the best of the old Something Awful forums. In other cases, it is truly a beautiful look into the absurdity of the modern media landscape in a few sentences.
But mostly, Twitter – including Weird Twitter, even while looking from the outside– was a community of people who looked at the world in similar ways. Twitter’s adoption was mostly by diehard; the vast majority of Americans don’t use it and heavy users – Staley runs down an hypothetical “Joe Sixpost” in his piece – make up 97% of tweets.
There’s also some data about the heavy users, and though Pew would not approve, let’s pretend, for our purposes, that it can be used to make a composite sketch of one. We’ll call him Joe Sixpost. Joe produces about 65 tweets a month, an average of two a day. Only 14 percent of his output is his own material, original stand-alone tweets posted to the timeline; half of his posts are retweets of stuff other people posted, and the remainder are quote-tweets or replies to other tweets. None of this stuff travels far. Joe has a median of 230 followers, and on average his efforts earn him 37 likes and one retweet a month. Nevertheless, it is heavy users like this — just the top quartile — who produced 97 percent of the larger group’s posts.
I guess that’s also what I found in it, but that’s going away. But even in covering it in nostalgia – Twitter was good before Musk took over!” is both true statement and a wild overstatement – people are putting too much onto this site. Comedian Kath Barbadoro wrote about Twitter and what it does – and doesn’t – provide her.
As I get older, I feel that by being on twitter, even when it’s lovely, I’m exchanging my privacy and my creative energy for a simulated form of community. When I’m on twitter less, I participate in my real-life community more, spend more time with my actual friends, and seek out more substantial forms of creative fulfillment. … It’s embarrassing to admit I am too weak willed to just log off sometimes, but admitting one is powerless over one’s addiction is the first step to overcoming it.
The community aspect of Twitter is something that cannot be forgotten, but… as the kids say, go touch grass.
Stay with me for a sec because this is only really half-thought: I wonder about our senses of community being warped by being online. I note this whenever I reference Bowling Alone and I’m hardly the first to think about it, but there is something deeply different about our communities online against our communities in the physical world. It’s true that the Internet is everything now, but it’s also true that only-mediated interaction is not useful. Being part of a community – seeing people, talking to them, seeing their facial reactions in real time, etc. – really means something different and much more important.
I’ll save the Musk armchair psychologists to tackle his deficiencies with greater panache. But, one thing is for sure: There is something deeply wrong with this guy. I don’t know if he’s just impulsive or too online or whatever, but the entirely
I’d say that I’ll leave the business minds to tackle the silliness of the deal in the first place, but I’ll first take a victory lap on something I said in November.
Whatever you think of Twitter, it did what it did well. When it was at its best, it was truly energetic. But, it’s not a profitable thing and never really has been. People love(d) it, but every change Musk makes seems to be less of a positive revenue generator. Maybe it was never something that could be saved financially, but Musk’s erratic behavior hasn’t helped and his ideas for making the whole site less verifiable only hurt more.
I’m not going to act like Substack (or Mastodon or BlueSky or Post.News or whatever) is going to replace Twitter. But, I’m trying most of them when I can and Substack is the leader in the clubhouse now. Since you are already a reader of my Substack thing, you can go over to to substack.com/notes or tap the “Notes” tab in the Substack app. You’ll automatically see my notes, you can reply and we can have decent conversations.
Check it out. Or don’t. We’re all kind of in the ether, anyway
As you certainly heard, our national elected officials are playing chicken with the United States economic situation in waiting until the 11th hour to actually negotiate a debt ceiling bill. Our reporter Eric Katz came on the show today to talk about it and what it would mean for feds to get IOUs instead of paychecks. It became even more prescient because Treasury chief Janet Yellen warned of a default on June 1 on Monday afternoon.
I also talked to Courtney Bublé about the president’s announcement that he’s running for reelection.
If you don’t like tempered ageist rants, you’re gonna have to cut off that episode about 85% through; I remain disappointed in the Boomer Democrats’ – and all Boomer voters’, considering the Trump thing – obsession with only voting for people their age for national office (admittedly, millennials love Sen. Warren and Sen. Sanders, who are also old as dirt, which is just as disappointing). I’m tired of the gerontocracy, personally.
My dog does not care for my May Day shenanigans.
She just ambled to the other end of the couch and went to sleep.
If you want to hear Lulu’s wonderful voice, check us out over at Instagram:
A Recommendation: Barry
I don’t watch much TV in real time – please do not spoil Succession for me – but Barry is one of the best shows on TV and I find its artful suspense too good to wait for a binge. This season is the show’s final one and it has not disappointed. It’s a terrific blend of humor and existential dread, taking the question “how do people like with their worst deeds and still believe themselves to be good people?” and wrestling with it within each character.
It’s also really funny. There are some excellent bits of absurd levity – “No sign of Hank or any gangsters at all. Just a bunch of Chargers fans and one guy in a Houston Oilers hat, which is confusing.” made me laugh out loud this week– within the show’s construct. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but Bill Hader does it. You’ve certainly heard the praise for Hader, Sara Goldberg, Anthony Carrigan, Michael Irby and Henry Winkler. It’s all true, but it’s more in that it’s the sum of those parts. It’s the best show on TV and the most challenging moral conundrum, to boot.