After an interesting and dramatic couple of weeks over at the Tweet factory, I have many thoughts and feelings. Those have evolved from reinforcing my perception that TWTR, the company, was bad at making Twitter the service into a business, to optimistic schadenfreude about Musk being forced to pay TWTR billions of dollars to not own the company, and now nostalgia and sadness after the resignation of seemingly everyone at the company whose immigration status is not tied to their employment.
Note: I will use Twitter to refer to both the service and the ongoing company owned by Elon Musk and TWTR to refer to Twitter, Inc., the public company.
I started using Twitter in March 2007. While I don’t post that much (13 thousand posts in 15 years), I’ve always found it to be the best resource to connect with disparate, but overlapping communities. Twitter hosts conversations involving world-class expertise about every topic imaginable. I use Twitter in multiple communities — subjecting my copyright lawyer followers to privacy law thoughts, and all of them to my TV thoughts, and Mac nerd ideas and Garden Yeti content. I love seeing the overlap between those communities. While Facebook was the platform with the people who you know in real life, Twitter was the platform with the people who you want to know.1
Twitter entirely supplanted blogging for me. I started posting on my website in the year 2000, which somehow is 22 years ago. And for at least the last 10 Just sharing a link — especially through a Retweet or quote Tweet is often easier and faster. Adding a thought to a stream of consciousness is easy. The character limit encourages brevity. Given the choice of expanding with more detail or analysis, I usually prefer to edit down for simplicity.
Just as I can’t believe that I’ve now used iPhone (15 years) for more than twice as long as I used non-smart cell phones (7 years), I can’t believe that Twitter largely supplanted other personal publishing for this long.
TWTR, the public company, was overall a force for good. While I was often frustrated with their choices that weren’t focused on making the service that I want (a reverse chronological timeline throughwa choice of native clients), under the leadership of Gadde, Twitter was a fierce advocate for freedom of speech around the world. A publisher needs enough scale to be able to control their entire infrastructure to not be subject to risk averse decisions made by service providers. Losing the support of a global-scale service to stand up to anti-speech regulations will likely have a detrimental effect on the freedom of speech under repressive or anti-democratic regimes.
From what I can see, Tweeps built a great culture that made TWTR a good place to work, where smart people could solve large problems and generally try to be a force for good in the world. Working at a smaller2, mid-sized tech company, I very easily imagine myself being in the shoes of Twitter employees who are now stuck with the choice of leaving and preserving their work-life balance or keep working at the chaos factory to try to preserve the values that they built into the product.
But, at the same time, a post-Twitter internet might be better. Centralized services controlled by a single company are the antithesis of what makes the internet so magical. Common protocols that allow anyone to publish and develop and build new things are good for creativity and innovation. Replacing a centralized Twitter with a decentralized, federated social network should be, overall, a positive improvement. It can allow for more innovation and communities to adapt tools to their norms faster. That said, Twitter did themselves adopt most of the good ideas that the community developed, like #hashtags, @mentions, retweets, and quote tweets.
After the vast majority of Twitter employees accepted an offer of severance in exchange for resigning, Twitter users have been planning an exit. Mastodon, which seems to me to be a viable replacement for Twitter has seen a huge influx of new users. When I first set up a Mastodon account in 2017, it was a small set of very online, techie users. Since Elno closed his purchase of Twitter, I’ve seen a diverse group of people in multiple different communities join Mastodon and it seems on the verge of being able to replace enough of the value that I get from Twitter. Another nice thing about Twitter is that it’s a general purpose tool that can be used very differently depending on how users find it valuable.
Moving to a decentralized social network pushes the costs out to the edges even faster than the benefits. Mastodon is largely run by volunteers who run community servers, who don’t have a centralized infrastructure team to run a data center and handle incidents, or anything like the scale of ad sales and revenue. I’m looking into running my own host. After graduating college, I realized that I want to own my main email address. I’d like to do that for social presence, too. Hopefully, we will see investment so that it’s easy to get the equivalent of a Gmail or Google Workspace plan for managed Mastodon servers. But, Mastodon is better software today than Twitter was early on. And if it is where many Twitter communities go, the tools will follow. It Tapbots make clients like Tweetbot for Mastodon (Trunkbot? Tuskbot?), I will gladly spend a few dollars a month to control my social presence.
Also, can we have the conversation about whether a billionaire should be able to disrupt a platform that employed thousands of people and enabled millions to communicate? The TWTR board and management did the right thing as a public company to accept Musk’s offer to buy the company. The premium that Musk offered was an amount of shareholder value that exceeded the present value of owning shares of TWTR as an ongoing concern. Parag Agarwal maximized value for TWTR shareholders, which is the obligation of the board. Should corporations codify their mission and values into their charters? What could TWTR have written into their articles of incorporation or bylaws to require the company to value promoting, advocating for, and enabling individual people to speak freely around the world? Can a public company ever maintain those values and have large institutional shareholders?
I am not optimistic about the future of Twitter, in part because I think that Musk does not understand the scale and scope of the platform or trust the people who built it. But, mostly, I am pessimistic because I think that the platform Musk wants is very different than what I want. I do not want an online conservative echo chamber. I do not want to be in a community that allows and encourages hateful speech and does not penalize people who harass others. Effective online communities require forceful moderation to establish and enforce norms of good behavior. Metafilter works so well as a community because of its moderation. Reddit is so variable, because each Subreddit makes its own moderation choices. I remember the Usenet flame wars and have no desire to return to those days. (I don’t remember why rec.skiing.alpine blew up, but I remember that it did).
So, thank you to everyone who worked at TWTR to build Twitter and make it the place where I learned information, connected with my communities and the world, and experienced major world events of the last 15 years. While there’s still a slim3 chance that Twitter survives this era of chaos and doubt, I will be writing more in the Fediverse and here.
Also, if you use Twitter, do export your data in case anything happens to the site. Thanks, GDPR.
- I do still belong to Facebook, I don’t actively use it regularly, though I do still actively use Instagram, even as I enjoy it less and less as the algorithm pushing Reels takes over the feed.
- Depending on how many Tweeps chose to leave, we may now have a larger workforce than what remains at Elno’s House of Chaos and Tweets.
- And growing slimmer every day.