As rumours circulate that the platform is on its last legs, we assess whether this is cause for mourning – or cracking open the bubbly
Twitter, the world’s most influential and beloved micro-blogging platform, is facing imminent collapse. As hysteria mounts, it appears the servers are unable to handle the high volume of people DMing me – in a final, desperate roll of the dice – to confess that I’m their secret crush.
It’s too early to say for sure whether this is really the end, but things aren’t looking good for the company, which has temporarily closed its San Francisco headquarters amid reports of mass resignations. Yesterday, CEO Elon Musk offered an ultimatum to its remaining staff: commit to “long hours at high intensity” or quit the company. Reportedly, over 75 per cent of the company’s remaining staff chose the latter, turning down the exciting opportunity to have a more stressful and unpleasant job for no additional money.
The company had already committed to reducing its workforce by 50 per cent, with Elon Musk firing people for making fun of him left right and centre. With this latest round of resignations, which includes engineering teams vital to the functionality of the site, it looks like Twitter will have to trundle forwards with a skeleton crew – or else rely on the voluntary labour of Elon Musk reply guys
As former employees speculate that Twitter’s days are numbered, many of the same people who’ve spent the last five years lambasting it as “the hell site” have taken to posting wistful, teary-eyed reveries about much it means to them. On the other hand, many are delighted that Musk might soon face a humiliating comeuppance. I’m not sure about this: while it would probably make a dent on his reputation as a genius, his fanboys will either claim he was playing a fiendishly clever game of 4D chess or that Twitter was ruined by the blue-haired, SJW employees who couldn’t handle his “extremely hardcore” approach.
I don’t actually believe that Twitter is going to crash any time soon, although I’m going to pretend that I do in order to manipulate people into following me on Instagram. But still, now seems like a good time to take stock: would it be such a bad thing if it did?
THE CASE FOR TWITTER
While the Annoying Loser demographic enjoys a position of hegemonic power, it’s also true that there are a lot of cool, funny and smart people on the platform. I have a hearty chuckle at something I read on there most days (mostly, but not limited to, my own tweets). It’s also a lifeline for many disabled people, who may face barriers to socialising in real life, and a source of community for marginalised communities.
As a way of enacting change, its power is limited, but it can be an effective tool for education and advocacy. When it comes to issues which are covered unfairly in the traditional media (trans issues, sex worker rights, or Palestine, for example), Twitter allows you to hear the direct and unmediated perspectives of people who might otherwise be denied a platform. In that sense, it can circumvent gatekeeping, censorship, and media bias, and I truly believe that it’s deepened my understanding of a number of causes. If it were to collapse, people across the world would lose an avenue to connect with one another, to organise, to share ideas, or simply to have a laugh. I think that would be a pity, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t miss it when it’s gone.
The demise of Twitter would also make it more difficult for hard-working and underappreciated freelance journos like myself to receive attention, which, arguably, would be the greatest tragedy of all.
THE CASE AGAINST TWITTER
Like all social media platforms, Twitter is explicitly designed to be as addictive as possible, and I suspect that many of its users would be happier without the grinding, miserable compulsion that it encourages. At its worst, it’s a viper’s nest of anger, bitterness, envy and resentment, where anything from enjoying a morning coffee with your husband to making chilli for your neighbour is liable to see you denounced by thousands of people. Twitter can generate interesting and useful conversations, for sure, but it’s also an easy way to waste hours of your life debating whether having ADHD gives you the right to shout at your cleaner.
The effect Twitter has had on society-at-large is similarly ambiguous. It can be a good way of introducing people to ideas, but these ideas won’t always be good ones – for example, research has shown that it played a decisive role in the election of Donald Trump. In recent years, perhaps the most effective movement to emerge on the platform has been anti-trans feminism, which has benefitted from all of the things we might point to as positives: its effectiveness as a tool for persuasion, its ability to bring together people with shared perspectives. Partly because the anti-trans movement has been able to garner the support of politicians and the mainstream media, it has been successful in translating online fervour into real-world change. This has had devastating consequences for the trans community in Britain, who face a spike in hate crimes and a series of legal challenges to their rights. Even if Twitter has also been an important space for trans organising, I’m doubtful that its effect has been net-positive.
Meanwhile, the success rate of progressive activism on Twitter isn’t especially inspiring. While the idea of a ‘Twitter revolution’ became a media phenomenon, the role which it played in a series of uprisings in the early 2010s (including Iran, Tunisia and Egypt) has since been shown to be wildly overstated. The platform has been effective in getting people fired and cancelling TV shows and book deals, but it would be hard to argue that it’s led to more substantive change.
Hashtag campaigns are very easy for people in power to ignore. #OccupyWallStreet petered out. #MeToo scalped some powerful men, but failed to lead to any meaningful improvements for women in the workplace. #BlackLivesMatter clearly has symbolic value, but while it has helped to shape public opinion on racism for the better, and lead to policing reforms at a local level (some of which have been largely symbolic), overall rates of police violence across the US have not decreased. On the other hand, these rates did decrease in most cities where BLM protests occured, which suggests that taking to the streets is more impactful than raising awareness online.
As Zeynep Tufekci writes in Twitter and Teargas, a book about online activism, “the internet allows networked movements to grow dramatically and rapidly, but without prior building of formal or informal organizational and other collective capacities that could prepare them for the inevitable challenges they will face and give them the ability to respond to what comes next.” As a result, it’s easy for online movements to burn bright and quickly fade away. Twitter can be an effective tool, and an entrypoint into more substantive forms of activism (both physical and digital), but it’s not a replacement for tried-and-tested methods of organising. If you want to change the world, you can’t tweet your way out of actually having to do stuff.
It’s clear that Twitter can be a useful means of changing narratives, shaping public opinion and raising awareness. But past a certain point, lack of awareness is not the problem. Enough people are already angry, and understand who their enemies are. When we channel that anger into tweeting, we are typically achieving nothing more than generating profit for a tech company. Elon Musk’s take-over has shown the fragility of creating a public sphere on a platform which doesn’t belong to us. Whatever sense of ownership we might feel towards it has always been illusory. If Twitter dies tomorrow, I’ll feel sad for the people who depend on it, and I may even shed a bitter tear for the banter I’ve enjoyed there over the years. But let’s not pretend it’s been an unalloyed force for good. Our need for connection will never be adequately addressed by a private company which views us as an exploitable resource.