23rd September 2023

A Virtual World of Live Pictures

Technology and Computer

The silver lining behind social media’s great disintegration.

When I entered the journalism program at the University of Texas in 2010, I was instructed by one of the first professors I ever had to start a Twitter account. This was during the glorious dawn of the Web 2.0 revolution—an era of unbridled Obama-era optimism—and as the media made its digitized transition, conventional wisdom said that reporters needed to develop their own bespoke personal brands. Ever since that day, I’ve consistently correlated success with the fluctuating number in my follower count. In fact, I would argue that every millennial who works on the internet has internalized the belief that resonance on Twitter is the only way to unlock progressively more illustrious opportunities—it somehow seems more relevant than your degree, your scoops, and even your endorsements. I think that’s why Elon’s reign of terror has been so bitterly ironic: Everything we’ve been taught about Twitter—and, frankly, social media in general—has proven to be an enormous lie. It was always volatile, and regrettably, we made it the locus of our careers.

Twitter isn’t dead yet, and it remains to be seen if the platform will truly flatline in the grand tradition of Friendster or MySpace. But that’s not for its leader’s lack of trying. Elon Musk took control of the company last October, and has spent his first year of stewardship gutting Twitter’s positive features while magnifying its many faults. The latest (and dumbest) aggression was to launch a harebrained to-the-studs rebrand, swapping out the marquee cyan bird for the letter X and teasing a sinister multiplatform future where Twitter might function as a highly decentralized bank operated by the least trustworthy person on the planet. This came after several other measures designed specifically to make the platform less functional: Musk has teased limits on the number of DMs unverified users could send, as well as a cap on the number of tweets we could read in a day. He’s also courted alliances with some world-renowned online psychopaths—Ian Miles Cheong, @catturd, RFK Jr.—whose malice can only be matched by their charmlessness, making the physical act of simply existing on Twitter grosser than it’s ever been. Consequently, the company’s advertising sales are down 59 percentsame with overall traffic—as Twitter becomes something of an isolated rogue state. I’m not sure what the curriculum for the University of Texas’ journalism program is today, but I doubt a compulsory X account is still mandated.

So what does this mean for the countless people who bought the hype? Who ground away at their Twitter accounts—triangulating pockets of virality until their followers doubled and tripled—putting the almighty bird at the center of their professional and personal aspirations? After all of their years stoking the algorithm, they’re the ones left holding the bag.

“I’ve definitely been affected by the changes and chaos at Twitter over the past several months,” said John Homenuk, the owner of the hugely influential NYC Metro Weather feed, which dispenses uber-precise forecasting for 85,000 followers. “Our account has seen a noted drop in engagement and growth since the changes began, almost traceable back to that exact week.”

Lately, Homenuk has eyed the archipelago of other upstart social media imprints that have risen to take advantage of Twitter’s protracted decline. There are the ossified standbys—YouTube, TikTok, Instagram—platforms that are lucky enough to be piloted by someone who does not possess Musk’s deeply unserious, mean-spirited disposition. (Homenuk is active on all of them, stemming the hemorrhage of his mother account the best he can.) Elsewhere, there’s Meta’s Threads, and the mutineering Bluesky Social—which is run by mutineering former Twitter employees, including Jack Dorsey—which are more legible Twitter clones, providing refuge from the storm for anyone who’d like to start from zero. Homenuk is making bets on all of these fledgling properties. If Twitter is to melt down, he intends to bring all 85,000 followers with him to the next life.

“The weather information that we provide depends on a few things—but the two main things are that we are trustworthy and that the information gets to people quickly,” said Homenuk. “The changes at Twitter have made both of those things more difficult for us.”

Jill Filipovic, a lawyer and journalist with a substantial 160,000 total followers, is staring down the same ultimatum. She, like so many other Twitter success stories, built her empire all by herself. Filipovic didn’t incubate in legacy magazines or host prime-time cable news desks. Instead she composed a vast litany of freelance blogs and thoughtful tweets, and planted them in cyberspace. Before long, she had rallied a fandom that was eager to purchase her books and listen to her podcasts; her authority was evidenced by the numbers on her timeline. None of this would’ve been possible without Twitter’s open terrain, but in a more cloistered, more decentralized social media environment, she does worry her particular media fiefdom could face foreclosure.

“Journalism is such an unstable field, and I’ve made some career choices that have been overwhelmingly positive, but have put the onus on me to build an audience of active readers,” said Filipovic. “This is one of the downsides of that. Many of the ways I’ve grown my career have begun to fall away. And that does feel scary without a functional Twitter.”

Of course, she’s also spending less time on Twitter in general, which is a trend that started long before the necrotic presence of Musk. In fact, Filipovic asserts that the platform’s downward spiral began sometime in 2016, as it became unambiguously clear—during the sputtering fallout of the Clinton/Trump election—that tweeting tends to bring the worst out in everyone. “I’m much better off when I’m not spending hours, or even minutes, of my day in a fight with some stranger. Or getting angry about someone being wrong online,” continued Filipovic. In that sense, she is of the opinion that a post-Twitter order will be better for journalism and better for her mental health. The only trade-off is a diminished professional footprint. Is that a good deal or a bad deal? Nobody seems to know for sure.

“Part of me wants to be set free from this crippling addiction and reenter the forest of total obscurity,” said Max Collins, lead singer of Eve 6, the 1990s alt-rock one-hit wonder that has, shockingly, become a trove for excellent lefty shitposts over the last three years. On the other hand, Collins enjoys his audience, and how they’ve blessed him with a strange, psychedelic afterlife for his rock band. “I enjoy forging my little sentences for impact,” he added. “[It’s] an outlet for my defects of character and worst impulses.”

But Collins understands that at the end of the day, he’s just a man who makes funny posts on the internet—@Eve6 is a personal account, and he’s leveraged no broader financial incentives into the void. “The people I really feel for are those who kind of need the site to make a living from their writing or whatever,” said Collins, noting that all of the blood, sweat, and tears issued by people like Filipovic and Homenuk could be “pissed on by an epic incel.” It’s true. I’m currently sitting at 5,900 followers—scores less than those I interviewed—and even I feel like I’ve been lied to.

However, there’s an argument that a reorigination of the social media apparatus might be a good thing. Twitter might have given us an audit to determine who possessed the most juice on the internet, but was it ever a coherent metric? Did talent and ability truly correspond to the Following tab? Ask any editor, and they’ll tell you the answer is no. The far more likely scenario is that Twitter rewarded a ton of smart, gracious, inventive people, but it was also a wild animal—bequeathing huge amounts of influence at random, ensuring that everyone invested in it was forever playing a rigged game. In that sense, we’re probably better off if the stranglehold that social media has on the creative industries is loosened. Twitter ought to be for posting. Our hireability—and our personal brands—should be a separate matter entirely.

Just ask Taylor Lorenz, the Washington Post journalist and author of a forthcoming book about influencership, Extremely Online, who credits much of her rise to her 350,000 Twitter followers. Lorenz predicts something of a “Great Clout Reset” on the horizon—everyone emerging from the rubble, starting over at square one—and frankly, she can’t wait to see what happens.

“It’ll separate the cream from the crop,” she told me. “So many people signed up for Twitter early, and they’re these legacy accounts with huge followings that don’t add anything. They’re coasting on that. We’ll finally see who really has a following. It’ll be more merit-based. I’m willing to sacrifice my own clout in pursuit of the next chapter.”

Maybe that’s the silver lining. Twitter might be dying, but maybe afterwards, we can try to become superstars all over again.