I have another, much more interesting and important thing to talk about—e.g. the witching cats of New Jersey—but enough people have asked me for my hot take on the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk that I’ll take a stab at it. I will get back to my regularly scheduled programming in the very near future, but for now, I am going to celebrate the fact that moving this site to kinsta earlier this week has made a rapid response like this one much easier.
In the 2005-2006 academic year, I led a team of scholars at the Annenberg Center for Communication in researching the topic of “Networked Publics.” This project led to a book of the same name, published by the MIT Press in 2008 and an aborted project on the broader topic of network culture that faced too much opposition from entrenched interests in the academy to see the light of day. Our little group didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but if there was anything we could agree with, it was the grim conclusion of the brilliant politics chapter written by Merlyna Lim and the late Mark E. Kann: although the Internet is a powerful resource for mobilization, it is a poor venue for democratic deliberation.
To this day, we have absolutely no evidence otherwise. The dramatic rise of algorithmically-produced content feeds in the nearly twenty years since our research year has made matters much worse. As algorithms respond to user engagement and reaction, they deliver the content that users want to see, creating a spiral of ever-increasing polarization (for a series of links to studies on this matter, see this piece from the Brookings Institution). Making matters worse are the social media “cops” on both sides who thrive on attacking viewpoints divergent from accepted consensus. If you say that vaccines are important and that the 2020 election was legitimate but your social media “friends” are right-wingers, you’ll get called out by an army of Trumpenproles if you say so. If you say that magic monetary theory is insane or that defunding the police will hurt African Americans more than anybody, you’ll get publicly shamed by the Internet cops on the Left. Then there are things that we know very well not to talk about with our peers. To take one example, virtually no academic would publicly say that doctoral programs are in crisis and universities are producing vastly more PhD.s than there will ever be jobs for just so that doctoral chairs can gain status in the academy and professors can get free research assistants, even though most academics I have spoken to about this agree wholeheartedly off the record. I am outside the academy so I can freely say this. But nobody in the academy can. The cops there have the power to destroy unorthodox thinkers so nobody will say it. Even outside academia, there are positions so politically dangerous that I won’t dare utter them out loud even here, notwithstanding that the vast majority of my peers agree with them privately (you’ll just have to guess, so sorry). Internet cops gain symbolic capital by dismissing ideas that don’t conform to the orthodoxy and it’s been interesting to observe as a few cops have, coincidentally or not, attained positions of minor leadership in the academy (probably because no sane person wants them). Cops tend not to think for themselves, but rather they are guided by what Venkatesh Rao calls beef-only thinkers, who demand unqualified support, folks like Glenn Greenwald, Michael Tracey, or Marjorie Taylor-Greene.
If, on the one hand, we have a social media landscape actively patrolled by cops, we also have a steady-state of outrage from the woke and the trumpenproles: everything is burning, right now/there has never been a more consequent election/there has never been a greater threat to democracy/etc. The news media—particularly TV news, but also online personalities—amp up the rhetoric in order to profit from the clicks. Outrage makes money, even as it makes us stupider. But after years and years of outrage, people are exhausted. It’s very much like pornography, searching for ever-greater stimulus, things got more and more extreme and eventually it wasn’t that people got scandalized, it’s that they got bored. Only the most politically active and the most insane want to the outrage to continue. After the nightmarish calamity following the 2016 election, COVID, the January 6 insurrection, and then the invasion of Ukraine, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline have literally taken their toll on our bodies, creating inflammatory reactions that leave us with no way to absorb more bad news. It may have been funny when a demented old grifter demanded to see Obama’s birth certificate, it was hilarious to see “America’s Mayor” stand up in front of the garage of a landscaping firm, burbling nonsense, his false teeth nearly falling out of his head, but nobody wants to see it again. In an economy sustained by growth, Facebook’s aging user group is down by significant numbers, and analysts are talking about a “death spiral.” Well, thank goodness. Nor is the subject of today’s diatribe, Twitter, immune, its active users are also fleeing, just in time for Musk’s ill-timed purchase. The only solution people are finding to this anxiety is disconnection, leaving all this crap behind. It will likely cause a rout for the Democrats in the 2022 election (I am not, however, entirely convinced of this), but if it does, it will be the far Left’s relentless barrage of alarmist news that will be, in large part, to blame.
What are the options? Clearly not Twitter. Elon probably should fire most of Twitter’s staff. Around 5,000 employees work at Twitter and, judging from the evidence, none of them save the people who make sure the servers don’t go down, do anything. The site has had virtually no innovation since its launch, the code is a notorious mess, and, well what do they actually do all day long?
Journalists like to promote TikTok as an alternative, but TikTok’s growth is limited to a high school and college age demographic in search of diversion. What political content exists there—a Johns Hopkins study suggests— is hardly any better than what can be found at Facebook and, in any event, like YouTube, TikTok is oriented less toward people producing their own content and more toward passive consumption and commenting. Instagram is not dissimilar, although there, the content-production tends to be aspirational and imitative in nature, contributing to body dysphoria and leading young women to seek to surgically reshape themselves into the “Instagram face” look pioneered by Jocelyn Wildenstein. The one healthy (for now) antidote for this is BeReal, an anti-Instagram that values immediacy and promotes looking real, or at least, candid and terrible, it’s only drawback is that virtually nobody except for college-age kids uses it (I know, you can visit mine, I have one follower). TIkTok and Instagram are terrible platforms for political messaging—although some will try—and BeReal is virtually useless for it. This, of course, is their charm.
If there are genuine alternative social media spaces right now, they are Discord and Substack. Both are flawed, but it’s Substack—not Twitter—that holds the only potential for a future social media platform right now.
Discord is a set of “servers” (not really servers, but they are called that, they are virtual spaces for micropublics) dedicated to a given topic, e.g. Minecraft gaming, Roblox, GTA, (Discord started as a space for emergent gaming communities), online generative art generators, techwear, eurorack synthesizers, alt-space, AI generative art, Arduino programming, white supremacism (this has since been banned) or whatever excites you. Discord is growing rapidly, but it has two major limiting factors. The first is that because of the conversation-like organization, unless one is actively engaged with a server, one rapidly loses track of what is being talked about. Catching up is neither intuitive nor, well, interesting. The second is that there is no broader link between these micropublics. Each server is a walled silo and there is no communication between them.
Substack is a platform for content-creators—mainly writers but also some podcasters— in which subscribers pay subscriptions for content and content-creators are promised income directly from their subscribers. Unlike the similar Patreon, however, it is more oriented around discovery and community. Log into the Substack site and you will be shown a sidebar with recommendations for other Substacks that are, shades of Facebook and Twitter, algorithmically recommended for you. Subscribe to a right-wing Substack, you’ll definitely be offered more. So, basically, another Facebook or Twitter. The up side is that Substack allows comments (depending on settings), and also has recently allowed users to incorporate RSS feeds from outside of Substack into their feed. If—and it’s a big if, one that likely won’t take place since it’s only my idea, not Substack’s—the platform can find a way to create glue between Substacks and users—such as making it easier for users to follow each other and talk directly to each other— it has some hope. The reason I hold any hope for Substack is that unlike Facebook or Twitter, it promotes long-form writing. This post makes no sense on Facebook or Twitter, but it will easily work on Substack. The second hitch is that Substack is heavily tied to a subscription economy. Most newsletters, it seems, cost about $10 a month. That’s great but can rapidly become unaffordable in an era where we are already paying for one or two newspapers, a couple of magazines, Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, and you get the idea… People are getting tired of subscriptions, very tired.
This leaves us with with WordPress. WordPress is not only the dominant worldwide blogging platform, it has a reader that allows readers to follow blogs and participate in dialogues in the comments. Again, it’s a long shot, but users are also implicitly encouraged to become bloggers and, well, why not? In the 1970s and early 1980s mass media seemed to be all-powerful, but then we had the Zine revolution and the explosion of the Internet, back when it was still fun and potential seemed everywhere. Substack and WordPress may not be the future, but I still think a platform with some future in it (I am no longer comfortable thinking it will be any lasting solution, let alone a utopian space of deliberative democracy) is coming if we have any hope of talking to each other online.
A final reflection on all this is how deeply sad this is for Elon Musk. Although he has recently shifted from being an icon of the Left to being an icon of the Right, he is the Steve Jobs of this age, having made both electric cars a reality and creating the first successful reusable rocket system. Ten years ago, even five years ago, owning two electric cars by 2022 would have seemed entirely implausible to me and yet, we replaced both our cars with Teslas in 2020. These cars require less maintenance than any other vehicles we have ever owned (thus far, our total repairs involve a heat pump valve on the Model Y and some issues with the rear gate on our Model S, plus some cabin air filter replacements oh, and new tires), have excellent performance (I’m a car guy, but my wife loves driving hers as well), and it is delightful to skip the weekly trips to the gas station. SpaceX’s phenomenal success speaks for itself (not only am I car guy, I’m a space nut) and Starship promises to revolutionize the space industry, and even though I am concerned about Starlink’s impact on astronomy, it has the ability to deliver secure Internet communications at broadband speeds virtually everywhere and has made a big, positive impact in military operations in the Ukraine. That, for whatever reason, Musk is spending his time and money on Twitter is very sad. If he wanted to have fun, wouldn’t it make better sense to just book a flight on a crew Dragon? I would. It’s not like he doesn’t won the only company that ever regularly sent people into outer space; eat your own dog food, Elon. Running Twitter seems incredibly boring. Moreover, Elon has a long list of failures to go along with the successes—Tesla Solar (I just put a new roof on my house, why wasn’t it from Tesla Solar?), Tesla’s Full Self-Driving has been around for almost two years and hasn’t gone anywhere (remember when Elon said we’d have self-driving Tesla taxis by 2020), and Tesla not only hasn’t released a single new vehicle since 2020, it has raised prices on existing vehicles while cutting out features such as front-facing radar and rear-facing ultrasonic sensors but hasn’t found ways to compensate. I own Tesla stock but I think they are in trouble unless Elon spends some time there soon and Twitter is a distraction he hardly needs.
Finally, as far as the future of Twitter. Who cares? It is a dying platform. I have met some great friends on it—many more than on Facebook—but if it dies and Facebook dies, it will be better for everyone. If Captain Dementia joins back up over the weekend, or Monday, or whenever, what does it matter. It’s not like anybody listened to him on Truth Social anyway.