I joined Twitter in 2009, after most of my tech oriented friends, and I thought I was late to the game. I had no idea what the platform would become.
In the early days most tweets were experiments, as users wondered what the platform might be good for. We were still in the last dying days of the Open Internet, before Google and Facebook (oops, sorry, Alphabet and Meta) wooed the globe’s users into turning over the keys to the kingdom. Most of the people I followed on Twitter ran blogs of some sort or another, and for those of us accustomed to long-form, this 140-character thing was novel and puzzling.
There were worthwhile tweets in those days, but as a friend put it, the ratio of signal to noise was very low. A lot of tweets (including my own) were about mundane daily activities: What show someone was watching, what they ate for breakfast, whether their train was late.
Then the platform evolved.
Celebrities joined, and suddenly people could speak directly to famous people who had, for decades, been shielded by publicists and managers. Young writers and comedians used the forum to try out material. The best–and the weirdest–became celebrities in their own right, sometimes building careers on a foundation of funny tweets. Corporations created Twitter accounts, giving rise to a new career path–social media manager–and birthing a flood of customer service complaints.
But Twitter’s greatest power was how it empowered communities. Hashtags began as a way of grouping tweets around a common topic, but went on to change the world. Black Lives Matter was born on Twitter. So was the Me Too movement. In 2016, April Reign’s “OscarsSoWhite” hashtag led to an upheaval at the Motion Picture Academy. A year later, after Donald Trump took office, Twitter was an organizing hub for protests like the Women’s March and the airport protests around Trump’s Muslim Ban.
This is not to suggest that Trending Topics only functioned for good, as the mere mention of Donald Trump should remind us. Twitter also brought us GamerGate and the Alt Right.
At its best, Twitter raised the voices of people legacy media had historically marginalized or excluded. This first crystalized for me during the Ferguson Uprising that followed the murder of Michael Brown. I am old enough to remember the 1992 Los Angeles “riots,” and the way white-dominated media chose to present those events to audiences across the nation, with focus on acts of violence and no interest in the motives of those participating. Two decades later I learned about Ferguson not from white reporters in helicopters above the fray, but from the participants themselves, Black Ferguson residents who could speak to the history of abusive policing that led to that moment. Thanks to Twitter, those protesters suddenly had a megaphone that could reach the whole world–they didn’t need to rely on Peter Jennings to tell white suburbanites what to believe.
But Twitter’s greatest flaw was that anyone could seize that megaphone. Just as it helped build the Movement for Black Lives, Twitter helped grow the ranks of the new fascist right, and just as it empowered historically marginalized communities, Twitter was too often weaponized to harass and terrorize members of those communities. From GamerGate to KiwiFarms to Q-Anon and Election Disinformation, the scale of the abuse made possible by Twitter grew so large that it simply had to be addressed.
From its earliest days Twitter’s commitment was to free and open speech, with no restrictions whatsoever. But the Internet has taught us again and again that the only way to truly protect free speech online is to establish and enforce ground rules. Any forum with absolutely no rules will eventually be overrun by trolls and fascists, who will make free speech impossible–not merely through coordinated campaigns of online abuse, but through in-person harassment, SWATing, doxxing, public outing, and death threats. The online troll forum Kiwi Farms, which was kicked off the Internet by its hosting company in September of 2022, targeted trans people with campaigns of harassment designed to push them toward suicide, and kept a “trophy wall” on their site listing the names of people they targeted who had ended their own lives.
This kind of abuse demands prohibition–if not out of simple decency and commitment to public dialogue, then out of commercial concerns. Advertisers do not want their names associated with a company famous for platforming abusers.
Which brings us to Elon Musk.
At best, Twitter was egalitarian. Every user had the same rights and responsibilities. Sure, movie stars and politicians might have millions of followers, but then so did @dril. In real life, a massive hedge fund billionaire wields extraordinary power, but on Twitter he might hold less power than an occasionally horny poet.
Now Twitter is the personal property of the world’s richest man, whose motive for purchasing the platform was that he thought there were too many restrictions on trolls.
Elon has made statements that he sees Twitter as an important “online public square,” but he seems to miss that the public square is, by definition, owned by the public. Not by a billionaire. Twitter has never been the public square, it has always been a private corporation with its own rules and policies. Since it went public, it was at least owned by the shareholders. Now Twitter is just one more toy in Elon Musk’s private toybox.
I can’t know what Elon Musk will actually do with Twitter. Will he bring back Donald Trump? To be honest I don’t care. There are two things I know for a fact: (1) Elon believes Twitter’s anti-harassment measures violate free speech; and (2) Anyone still writing tweets is performing free labor to enrich Elon Musk.
Giving up Twitter is no small thing for me. Twitter is where I first went viral in 2013 with a cartoon viewed by more than 10 million people worldwide. It has been my main public outlet, and over the years I have managed to build up an audience of more than 12,000 followers. For comparison, in an average week fewer than 20 people visit my personal web site. For someone like me, in a creative industry, those kinds of numbers are important.
But I refuse to be a cog in Elon Musk’s personal machine. As long as he owns the company, Twitter is dead to me.
I like to think something new will come along. But given the modern ecosystem of the Internet, I don’t know how likely that is.