Nick Hanover: Hello and welcome to the first installment of Twitterpocalypse Now, an ongoing correspondence between two people who have been embedded on the battleground that is Twitter for perhaps too long.
It’s been a whirlwind month here on Twitter, beginning with Elon Musk asking bestselling novelists how much they’d be willing to pay for a blue check mark like some too-online Gil Gunderson, the departure of Twitter’s top privacy and security division leaders, fake accounts tricking people into thinking the pharmaceutical industry is going to give insulin away for free and, oh yeah, an all-hands meeting where the world’s, uh, “zaniest” billionaire floats bankruptcy like a soon-to-be-divorcee suggesting the marriage get “opened up.”
Kim, I have to ask– even in your most pessimistic vision of a Musk-controlled Twitter, did you think things would go south so quickly and so explosively?
Kim O’Connor: Noooooooooo. No, no, no. No, absolutely not. I think that upended expectation is such a big part of the chaos of this moment, because such a huge portion of my brain—everyone’s brain—is preoccupied with the question of, like, what is he even doing? Which is just a koan for the damned, like trying to meditate on pure chaos, and anyway beside the point.
I was more optimistic about the Musk takeover than a lot of people, not because I thought he knew what he was doing, but because Twitter was already in pretty dire financial straits. It’s deeply weird to me how Twitter has already been retconned as this place that was performing some sort of noble service for humanity. Suddenly everyone’s bought into that whole spiel that Jack Dorsey tried (and failed!) to sell for years. But anyway Twitter was in trouble, some of which was on Musk and his ongoing public tantrum, but more of which was due to years of Dorsey’s ayahuasca nightmare vision quest style of mismanagement. Some of the steps Musk has taken, like the layoffs, were happening with or without him, though obviously he has gone about it…badly.
It’s interesting to think about that alternate reality, the path not taken for Twitter, because one of many things that feels lost in the current conversation is that such a situation would have presented its own set of worries and risks. For instance, someone or something might have tried to monetize Twitter in a more competent way – or use its influence in a more competent way. That’s probably a worse scenario than if Twitter goes offline tomorrow. Then again, maybe the site would have just wound down in a more normal and predictable way, like defunct platforms from the past.
Anyway, we have the situation that we have, and trying to come to grips with it is bizarre because it’s changing very rapidly. You have an entire Twitter, myself included, trying to process that in real time. People are talking about a wide range of feelings, which makes sense, and about what Musk is doing, which is pointless, but the bigger questions that feel underdiscussed are how will this change our perspectives and the ways we engage with the internet (as individuals, as professionals, as orgs), and what is the ripple effect going to be if this very weird but influential platform keels over in the most dramatic and disruptive way possible in…what are we even giving it at this point? Weeks? Months?
It’s hard to know where to start, lol. I guess that’s why we’re here. Where’s your head?
Nick: For me, I’m at a mix of amused and anxious, which I guess isn’t too far from my default state of being, just amplified a thousandfold. I can’t help but be entertained by every new chaotic development at Twitter, like the “gizmos” rant Musk went on during an all hands meeting where he casually dropped that the company might just be bankrupt already. But I’m anxious about what this situation— and the similarly bizarre one going on with Zuckerberg’s quixotic quest to make the Metaverse happen at the cost of seemingly every other part of his company— means for the internet at large.
Is this real life?
I’ve seen a lot of comments from people trying to dismiss the Twitter situation as not that big of a deal because social media platforms come and go. But I think those of us who are old enough to remember a time before the internet dominated culture and who also came up with the rise of the social media platforms would be hard pressed to think of a situation in the past that was remotely like this.
I genuinely do not believe Twitter will be replaced by any of its copycats, like Mastodon. I also do not believe something else will fill the void. Generally, social media platforms have died either because something better came along or they stopped being cool or a mix of both. The closest comparison I can think of to what is happening with Twitter would be Yahoo’s aborted ownership of Tumblr, where they let corporate paranoia around adult content destroy one of the cornerstones of the platform. That said, the Tumblr decline falls into the “stopped being cool” category and as great as Tumblr was at its height, it was never exactly unique as a platform– before it, you had LiveJournal and its decline arguably provoked the rapid evolution of Reddit as a haven for pedantic arguments, porn, showing off creative work, porn, batshit drama and, of course, porn.
By contrast, I would argue Twitter is the only consistent, functioning, easy to use platform that is essentially built strictly for discourse and ideas, so it’s fitting that it is imploding so spectacularly right as society at large seems to have rejected those concepts. It’s not that I believe Twitter was ever going to save the idea of a free flowing exchange of ideas but I think its fall and Zuckerberg’s obsessive need to force people into the Metaverse signals that we are probably at the end of the era where you could say the internet was a community and are now heading into the era where the internet is a dopamine cage. Outside of the macro level, though, how do you feel about the end of Twitter on a personal level, particularly as a writer and critic?
Kim: I think it’s very hard, maybe impossible, to separate the macro perspective from my personal point of view. And that has a lot to do with the shift or sea change you’re alluding to (which I feel, too) where the internet—which has always been unruly, sprawling, incomprehensible, etc.—is behaving very strangely.
You know, “legs are coming soon.” I keep coming back to that as the tagline of this modern life. What does it mean?? Nothing good. It’s sinister, right? Disconcerting, disorienting. Weirdly specific. Disembodied, yet at the same time quite personal. Legs are lurking out there somewhere, impatient, poised to emerge at some unspecified point in time. They want to steal my lunch money or eat my soul or worse.
As you say, so much of this is just an entertaining and fascinating spectacle. But that “can’t look away from this car crash” aspect is at war with my body and mind, which on some level reject the task of contemplating Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg so much. They are repugnant albino eel people – physically, intellectually, spiritually. Definitely irrational and probably insane. And, sure, we can say that Twitter is relatively niche, and that the behemoth of Facebook has entered its death process. But these deviants are inarguably some of the richest and most influential, powerful people in the world! So I feel a little gaslit by people who are shrugging at the magnitude of whatever is going on, even as I wonder if I’m being melodramatic and suffering from late-stage posting disease.
For me, personally, Twitter is my main sort of interface with the internet. It’s a social platform, it’s a news source, it’s a search engine. In terms of discoverability and cultural awareness, the things I’m reading and thinking about – a lot of it is sort of happening from there. And I agree with you that nothing seems poised to take its place. I love watching Penn Badgley do his little dances, but there is nothing on TikTok for me. It’s inane! Like…people are using Reddit as a search engine now. Broadly, our windows on the world are contracting, and many of them seem poised to collapse altogether. So like…what’s the plan?
Nick: I had a conversation last month during a content planning session for a client and we were talking about doing something parodying Nick Lutsko’s Spirit Halloween theme song. After a while the client’s Gen Z assistant spoke up and asked what we were talking about– which wasn’t necessarily that weird, I don’t expect everyone to remember every viral thing– but she said she couldn’t find the Spirit Halloween song when she searched for it. We questioned that and said “it should come up right away on Google” and then she told us “Oh, I don’t search for things on Google, I just use TikTok.” That completely derailed the meeting because then all of the rest of us were like “what the ever loving fuck.”
I think our generation is a special kind of fucked as a result because we are very online and yet we remember the before, whereas Gen Z was born into the internet and are used to this rapid scaling and imploding that goes on with everything now. I think for us– and specifically those of us who work in or care about language and the written word– it’s harder to accept that communication is becoming less about understanding and more about spectacle and words are just an unnecessary step in the delivery of spectacle.
I think this is why the Metaverse plan doesn’t really appear to have any interest in making communication better only different, and why platforms like TikTok push communication away from the main delivery and onto subpages– they view comments and messages as vestigial appendages to be phased out rather than actively encouraged, with the exception of their Duets feature, which, again, is more spectacle than communication. Even the whole concept of streamers on Twitch and YouTube is centered around passively watching someone else do something and you’re encouraged to react rather than discuss or contemplate, with their emphasis on tokens and thumbs up and emojis and so on.
Twitter and any other message and communication based social media platform was already losing the evolutionary battle and Musk just gave it a major boost towards obsolescence. To latch on to your perfect commentary on legs are coming soon, we in the Twitter-realm are whatever legless thing took a look at our successors finally getting up out of the primordial ooze and instead of following along just screamed out “i’m not owned.”
With that in mind, I don’t think there is any actual plan, though I do hold out hope that just as streaming did to music, this will provoke a revived interest in “analog” content, which in our case would be a resurgence of blogs and zines and shit like that? That may sound stupidly optimistic but even before this I was seeing more people turn back to older methods of communication and community building and maybe this will push some of us to finally act on that. What has your Twitter Prepper contingency plan been like? Do you have a newsletter I can subscribe to?
Kim: I just want to go back to what you said for a sec about how these platforms are evolving in a way where words and discussion are becoming vestigial. That sounds absolutely right. Meaning itself is vestigial. I think a really confusing characteristic of these currents and trends we’re talking about is that they are totally devoid of meaning, in a way. What is going on with Twitter? With Facebook? It’s like one of those AI images that refuse to resolve into something recognizable.
Name one thing in this photo
We’re human, we like to narrate. We make sense of the world by telling stories about it. What is the story right now?? What Musk is doing is totally incoherent, but it has immediately had enormous real-world consequences. Eli Lilly has lost billions of dollars because someone paid $8 to tweet a joke about insulin being free. That is a straightforward cause and effect. That is influence on a scale that is far beyond people selling expired moisturizer and badly made jackets on Instagram. I think the general consensus used to be that mass media and social media, the whole attention economy, was making us dumber. But these days the Braindead Megaphone seems quaint. Now we’re living in a time of inscrutable grifts. They’re trying to monetize an imaginary dimension and whatever else and we have to read a novella-length brief from Matt Levine every fucking day to even vaguely track the consequences.
I’m thinking about how Pepe the frog went from signifying nothing to being a mascot for nationalists and bigots as a classic example of what happens when we have a widespread message that is meaningless. Then Pepe found a third life as the cornerstone of an NFT empire for its creator, Matt Furie. When you have ciphers or spectacle that’s devoid of meaning, that dead air tends to get coopted by the world’s most grotesque losers in one way or another.
So I don’t know, I’m still at a loss with my Twitter prepper plans. I’ve thought about doing a newsletter, mostly as a way to direct people to where I end up or to my analog projects, but that’s obviously more of a one-way broadcast kind of thing. What I’m wondering about alongside that is how to replace how I use Twitter as a consumer of information and what’s going on in the world.
Genius at work
Nick: I truly do not know what answer there is for that last component, because every other platform seems to actively hate the idea that you would want to actually learn and engage with things rather than stumble across information for a brief moment while you’re chowing down at your content trough. The only other platform that I use regularly that comes anywhere close to fulfilling that is Reddit but that obviously comes with a whole other can of worms.
But I suppose that’s something we can save for the next installment, after we’ve had a bit more time to float around in our Twittertanic debris seeking out something sturdier than a door as we try not to drown. This has been Twitterpocalypse Now, good night and good legs.