Maybe Twitter Should Die?

We’d lose the memes - but also the moral panics.

by Moya Lothian-McLean

8 November 2022

Image shows billionaire Elon Musk superimposed in front of the blue Twitter logo with a white bird in the centre.
Twitter has an outsized influence on Western society. Image/James Duncan Davidson

Twitter is dying, apparently. Depending who you ask, the platform has been in a downward spiral for the majority of its lifespan; it’s a “hellsite”, users frequently complain, a cesspit of misinformation, aggression and polarisation. 

Yet now, we are warned by commentators and experts, this really could be the end times, not just culturally but functionally. Billionaire Elon Musk has completed his takeover of Twitter and chaos has immediately ensued: mass layoffs of key staff, followed by swift rehires because well, they’re key staff; Twitter’s board dissolved and replaced by a cabal of rich tech bros, now acting as Musk’s unofficial advisors on the changes he should implement. Bright ideas range from charging ‘verified’ users a monthly fee, to bringing back the defunct money pit of a video platform, Vine. All this is in aid of making Twitter profitable enough to comfortably cover the annual £1bn interest payments Musk has levied on the company in order to buy it (at a vastly overinflated price) in the first place. 

Uncertainty is never good for business, let alone one already beleaguered by a faltering user base. Musk’s first moves upon acquiring Twitter has seen an exodus of users and, more significantly, advertisers spooked by the impact of layoffs on the site’s content moderation, increasing the mountain he has to climb. But even for the users that stay on Twitter for the moment, undeterred by either the rabid press appetite for its demise (what a story!), or the politics of its new boss, there are predictions that using the site will become such a logistical headache in the wake of staff cutbacks, its relevance death warrant is in the post. 

Twitter’s influence is massively outsized; it’s by far the smallest of the major social networks and only has an estimated 290m users worldwide (thousands of whom are, according to Elon Musk, bots), to the billions who flock to Facebook or TikTok. Its most active users – who generate the most revenue – were in decline before Musk even signed on the dotted line to acquire the site.

What happens if, for all intents and purposes, Twitter ‘dies’? Many have been preemptively mourning the benefits it has offered over the years including the amplification of voices otherwise often silenced; community, organising, education and the development of our greatest 21st century cultural output: the meme. All of these things are true; Twitter contains multitudes, just as its users do. But for those interested in creating a more progressive, equal society, Twitter’s demise may overall be a blessing in disguise. 

For all its pockets of connectivity, the site’s wider impact has also been to warp perceptions of what ‘people’ – that vague, imprecise category – are talking about, to blow fringe issues up into ‘discourse’, where it is beamed into the eyeballs of the elites who direct conversation and policy outside of the site. On Twitter, influential faces slop from the trough alongside us ordinary folk and facile discourse like ‘should kink be allowed at pride?’ shapes their perspective while entrenching an ‘us vs them’ impression. 

The site has become a breeding ground for moral panics to gain ground and rumble on – such as the likes of the transphobia currently gripping England. At first relegated to internet forums such as Mumsnet, the movement migrated to Twitter where it found a febrile petri dish of conversation, ripe for hijacking with fear mongering, falsehoods and the ability to spot famous people and journalists vulnerable to a spot of radicalisation. Sites like Twitter don’t create these rightwing panics but they certainly get more eyeballs on them and extend their shelf life. 

The lifeblood of Twitter is extreme views masquerading as sense and people engaging with them seriously, regardless of how little oxygen they deserve. Everyday there is some escalated nonsense that diverts energy and attention; a unionised cat called Jorts being accused of ableism, some libertarian podcast bro blaming Cardi B for his wife not reaching orgasm. Everything is delivered in the same hysterical, yet curiously flat, register. The discourse is individualistic, dispassionate and yet furious and polarising, all at the same time. And rather than being contained on this forum, it leaks into the real world and poisons it too

On Twitter nothing matters and everything does, so much. It is surely telling that across the political spectrum of Twitter’s user base, the site itself is derided by the very people who create its content, from rightwingers railing against the woke liberals suppressing their speech, to lefties sniping at the hierarchies created by ‘blue ticks’. Time and time again there has been hand wringing over how the platform is exacerbating everything from anxiety to the death of sincerity. And yet, so many remain in bondage to a website nicknamed after the realm where evil souls are sent for eternal punishment. It’s a privately (now billionaire) owned platform, the structures of which dictate users must conform to ever increasing levels of solipsism, and siloed interactions. Why do we keep expressing shock when this setup fails to produce political positives? 

Twitter is unlikely to suddenly shut down its servers altogether, nor are all its users going to abandon the site in one fell swoop, whatever ‘Mastodon’ hopes. But Musk’s takeover does feel like the end of an era of sorts, a shock that will – hopefully – prompt a re-evaluation across the left of exactly what Twitter is and how we use it. 

As imprisoned Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah wrote of Twitter, in the recently published work ‘You Have Not Yet Been Defeated’: “This medium is stifling. It’s very strange that the entire world knows that these tools and mediums are defective and they have no faith in them and are suspicious of them, but they just keep using them. There’s a need for an alternate imagination.” 

RIP Twitter. Maybe, just maybe, the evil you have done in this world is enough.

Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.

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