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Twitter Isn't That Important

Elon, what are you doing? I don’t know. None of us knows.

But it appears you’re tearing Twitter apart. And this is driving people to Mastodon. I will talk about Mastodon at some other point – I am, of course, writing a book about it.

Here, I want to talk about the fall of Twitter and what I think it means.

The TL;DR version is: I don’t think Twitter was all that important.

One thing I keep hearing: what are we losing if Twitter goes away? This is asked in many different ways — are we losing a town square? Are we losing insight into how people socialize? Are we losing an archive of human history? Perhaps the clearest explanation of what Twitter may have meant comes from Anjana Susaria’s Conversation article.

Now, academics and journalists are mourning Twitter. But I would suggest that this moment is a good one to reconsider some very basic assumptions about that site.

I wonder if instead of thinking of Twitter as a “town square,” maybe what’s really happening is we are losing the conceit that a relatively small facet of human life has been conflated with a “town square” because the elites who use that system have declared it to be a town square?

What if instead of a record of all human activity, we are losing easy-to-gather datasets to make overly simple claims about sociality? And what if all we are losing an archive that, were it to persist, would warp our conception of this period of history?

I don’t want to downplay the importance of Twitter to your life – if it was important to you, that’s fine. Many people find community online.

What I am questioning is Twitter’s overall social utility. For every claim about the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter (e.g., “how could social protest possibly happen without Twitter?!?”), let’s talk about governments using Twitter to monitor and dominate populations. For every claim about revealing previously unseen facets of social behavior, let’s talk about how Twitter reduces us to a small set of social verbs – so small, in fact, that socialbots can successfully mimic our behavior in the site. For all the claims about “the archive,” let’s not forget that this system was designed to get us to declare our likes and desires, generate data about those things, and sell us back to ourselves qua commodities. Some archive.

To be fair, anyone who knows my work for the past decade will probably not be surprised that I am dismissive of doom-and-gloom over Twitter’s loss. I’ve been calling for people to leave sites like Twitter for over a decade.

But even if it survives – and it may just – let’s take this moment to stop elevating it to a status that it really doesn’t deserve.

Post-Script: On Donald Trump

As I write this, the news just broke that Musk will let the insurrectionist Donald Trump back onto the site. Again, here is exactly what I’m talking about: because media elites have relied on Twitter, it is only right and proper that Trump is brought back so we can have access to his contributions to the “town square.” Frankly, this is utterly insane. He. Tried. To. Become. The. Dictator. Of. The. World’s. Biggest. Military. Power. The idea that we have to debate issues with him and his ilk in a corporate website is bankrupt.

Post-Post-Script: I’m out

I just deactivated my Twitter account.

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I'm afraid my fediverse-to-blog comment system hasn't been working for some time. I'm going to fix it... someday. In the meantime, I'll discuss these blog posts on Mastodon (I'm @robertwgehl@scholar.social) and you can also reach me at robertwgehl @ protonmail DOT com.

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