A Eulogy for Twitter

Initially this article irritated me immensely. As clichés go, “it’s not as good as it used to be” is one I find peculiarly obnoxious, at least when it relates to the internet. But I think it actually makes some very interesting points:

Those fictions have proven foolish, one-by-one. The service is filled with spam accounts: The median tweeter has just one measly follower, so how many of your followers are real people? The growth of Twitter, year-over-year, has plunged since 2011. And the tensions of Twitter’s inherent (and explicit) attention market seem to push and pull it in odd, fractal ways: to keep your Twitter timeline slow is to stop following others, to stop following others is to stop exploring the service (and to reduce the number of folks who can find you), to stop exploring the service is to get bored.

Twitter users may just get too good at tweeting, too. When a new user joins Twitter, it takes time for them to figure out what they’re doing. You get to see all the visible seams in their work—the misunderstood conventions and misapplied hashtags—and the service becomes fresher in their naivete. Here’s a new friend to hang out with! The new user, too, gets to interact with new people and establish his or her voice. It’s an exciting thing to watch, but as growth slows, the excitement does, too.

This isn’t just about the platform going mainstream. Many users disliked that the service auto-expanded images or harassed third-party client developers, saying that both discouraged the power users who came to Twitter for a writing platform. But the company has also arguably rewarded early adopters. Twitter’s new profiles prominently showing the month and year you joined the service.

And Twitter remains a meaningful meet-up spot for some conversations. The predictable churn of the outrage cycle can make it hard to remember that the platform still amplifies otherwise underrepresented voices about essential topics. You can attend a protest on Twitter that you can’t attend in real life. Some of the conversations it hosts aren’t happening anywhere else.

Viewed through this lens, the publishing platform might be seen as a microcosm for the power-shift in media from traditional gatekeepers to the rest of us. And this transfer of power is, at times, messy. (Consider the disputes over what different Twitter users consider to be “public” information.) Ultimately, this is a debate over who controls the narrative.

Actually, a lot of Twitter fights are ultimately about this very question.

* * *

So who is Twitter for, anyway?

“Twitter is the new comment section,” our friend Margarita Noriega—you may know her as @Margafret—said. “It’s changed, and unfortunately, it’s gotten a lot worse. It’s too filled with spam and hate speech and unverified content… At some point the Ezra Kleins of the world are leaving Twitter. They’re going to be the first people to leave.”

In fact, the Kleins of the world have somewhat already left. A year ago, Klein lamented that Twitter’s signal-to-noise to ratio was too low. Check his feed today and he’s almost disengaged from the service entirely: Rarely replying or retweeting, he broadcasts Vox stories and nothing more.

The irony about the Klein example is that he’s become the go-to example of media privilege, yet he got his start in journalism as a blogger at a time when established journalists used the word “blogger” as a pejorative.

It has since become common for journalists to get their start on Twitter, in the same way that it no longer seems strange—at least among media types—to have met friends on the platform. But once media types of a certain stripe professionalize their accounts, they become like Klein’s: all scheduled tweets and broadcast links. They care about the writers they’d care about anyway—who often already have their own platform—and reply to them. Otherwise, they seem to ignore the stream.

It’s users like Klein who contribute to the sense that Twitter’s period of openness—this window when people looking to do something other than self-promotion might join—may be ending.

Some women have backed off the service altogether. It’s hard to avoid the ’splain-happy men who feel entitled to rock an otherwise friendly Twitter canoe. For a platform that was once so special, it would be sad and a little condescending to conclude that Twitter is simply something we’ve outgrown. After all, the platform has always been shaped by the people who congregate there. So if it’s no longer any fun, surely we’re at least partly to blame. And why worry about this dynamic anyway? All this attention on a platform that’s not that widely used may feel outsized, but that’s because its influence on publishing is gigantic: Twitter is the platform that led us into the mobile Internet age. It broke our habit of visiting individual news homepages first thing in the morning, and established behaviors built around real-time news consumption and production. It normalized mobile publishing power. It changed our expectations about how we congregate around shared events. Twitter has done for social publishing what AOL did for email. But nobody has AOL accounts anymore.


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