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The world is big and no one is listening
Social media fragmentation has liberated us.
When Elon Musk first announced his intent to buy Twitter, I believed there was a reasonable chance he might improve the platform. In some ways he did — Community Notes, for example, is an amazing feature for fighting misinformation, and other platforms should copy it. But in most ways he did not. Musk banned third-party clients, reduced integration with other platforms, switched the default to a TikTok-like algorithmically generated feed, and implemented a paid verification system that boosted replies by any random person who was willing to pay. Then about a week ago, Twitter rate-limited how many tweets people could read, and how many they could post. This had the predictable effect of reducing traffic on the platform.
My friend Eugene Wei, who is among the most perceptive analysts of social media, recently summed it up:
This past year, for the first time, I could see the end of the road for Twitter….Twitter will persist in a deteriorated state, perhaps indefinitely. However, it's already a pale shadow of what it was at its peak. The cool kids are no longer sitting over in bottle service knocking out banger tweets…In the past year, so many random meetings I have with one-time Twitter junkies begin with a long sigh and then a question that is more lamentation than anything else: “How did Twitter get so bad?”…
I ran a report recently on all the accounts I follow on Twitter. I hadn’t realized how many of them had been dormant for months now…I hesitate to unfollow them; perhaps they’ll return? But I’m fooling myself. They won’t. Inertia again. A user at rest tends to stay at rest, and a user that flees tends to be gone for good.
I’ve heard and sensed the exact same. Twitter felt like a platform in decline since well before Musk took over — young users were abandoning the service, and internal documents showed core users were fleeing. Now, in the Musk era, it can feel like an absolute ghost town. You can shout, but no one is listening.
But if Elon failed to fix Twitter, he did the next best thing: He exposed it to real competition. Knockoff products for right-wingers (Gab, Parler, Truth Social) have existed for a while, and the old network Mastodon got a brief bump from rage-quitting progressives when Musk took over. But Twitter’s recent degredation created an opportunity for two new more formidable competitors to emerge — Bluesky, a decentralized Twitter-like protocol created by Jack Dorsey, and Threads, an Instagram-linked discussion platform created by Mark Zuckerberg.
It’s the latter that presents the greatest threat, due to its sheer scale — Instagram is around four times the size of Twitter, so it avoids the “cold start” problem that any new social media network faces. Metcalfe’s Law is firmly on the side of Threads here; there are rumors that the app already has 93 million downloads just a few days after launch. If you’re interested, you can follow me there at @n0ahpinion.
The competition is a good thing. I’ve long argued that the internet wants to be fragmented — that having a single “town square” for all of humanity doesn’t make any more sense for the online world than it does for the physical one. Good communities require that members be able to exit and find a different community if they don’t fit. During its heyday in the late 2010s, Twitter was amazing in many ways, but it was never a good community, because there was nowhere else to go, and so like the characters in No Exit, we were all stuck together in the Hell we created for each other. Now there are other places to go. And as Eugene writes, that likely means we’ll never see the world of public discussion come back together all in one place.
We’ve lost something, but in losing it, we’ve freed ourselves from something.
Anyway, as someone who has done a lot of thinking (some might say too much!) about how Twitter and social media in general affect our information ecosystem and our politics, I thought I’d make some predictions about how the death of the internet’s singular “town square” will change our society in the years to come.
The decline of Twitter is a huge blow to “cancel culture”
Back in 2022, I wrote a post about “cancel culture”. In a nutshell, my thesis was that social ostracism is a very old facet of human society, but that social media has made ostracism both easier and more damaging than in the days when most interactions were with people you knew. The fact that what you say on the internet never really goes away, combined with the fact that you don’t know exactly who you’re talking to, significantly raises the likelihood that people who lack all context — or who are maliciously out to get you — will seize on something you say and use it to ruin your reputation. Social media made ostracism feel so qualitatively different that we gave it a new name.
This effectively led to a social revolution throughout America. Before social media, society consisted of a collection of more-or-less closed hierarchical organizations — companies, universities, government agencies, churches, professional organizations, and so on. If you had a problem with the way your boss ran things, who would you complain to? With the invention of social media, you suddenly had an audience to hear your grievance — random bystanders. If the boss had said or done something that bystanders might be persuaded to construe as racist, misogynist, ableist, etc., you could “cancel” them simply by appealing to educated society’s generally liberal values. If not, you could describe their “toxic behavior” and maybe cancel them anyway. Suddenly your boss would find herself assailed by dozens — dozens!! — of angry Twitter randos. That wouldn’t be a big pile-on to a pundit like myself, but to a 50-year-old American woman not used to being shouted at by dozens of people all at once, that’s a PTSD-inducing event. The hapless boss would be forced to capitulate or resign, or at the very least to endure a permanent loss of standing and respect within the organization.
In a post for Bloomberg back in 2018, I likened this to “gekokujo”, the practice of young Japanese army officers disobeying or even murdering their superiors in the 1930s with the help of free-floating unrest among the populace. I noted that the practice seemed to have percolated into even the smallest and sleepiest nooks and crannies of American society:
[T]ech companies are feeling the heat from workers angry over political and cultural issues. Rebellions from the ranks have torn apart organizations in the worlds of romance writing, knitting, young adult novels, science fiction and many more. Within media organizations, employees challenge executives. In the economics profession, Twitter users have brought broad public attention to issues of racism and sexism, and right-wing economists have targeted professors they don’t like.
Twitter was important to this process simply because of the unique way it was set up. The fact that anyone can mention anyone meant that if 27 people decided to dogpile the organizers of a science fiction convention, their angry comments would all force themselves into the notifications tab of the hapless target. The fact that Twitter is one giant room where everyone is talking to everyone made it super easy for angry people to gin up a mob of 27 bystanders, especially using the quote-tweet function. And the fact that Twitter users (unlike Facebook or Instagram users) have little or no control over the replies to their tweets meant that they couldn’t even speak up for themselves without angry people flooding the replies.
Twitter was the nuclear weapon of cancel culture, and no hierarchy or organization was safe.
This effect gave Twitter a uniquely symbiotic relationship with America’s age of unrest in 2014-2020. Twitter fed unrest by encouraging everyone to rebel against every offline hierarchy of which they were a part. But unrest encouraged Twitter’s cancel culture by increasing the general free-floating anger in our society; this enlarged the pool of random angry bystanders who could be drawn upon to form ad-hoc dogpile mobs. If you were generally mad about Trump, or Kavanaugh, or immigrant kids in cages, and you were hanging around Twitter because that’s where everyone who cared about public affairs hung around, and you saw a tweet denouncing a sci-fi convention for misgendering a speaker, well, maybe you’d take 15 seconds out of your day to yell at the convention organizers. In some small way, you might feel like you were contributing to the overall battle against racism, misogyny, ableism, and cisheteropatriarchy in American society. The right was a bit late to this game, but became especially ferocious in recent years; witness the cancellation of Bud Light.
The slow decline of unrest over the last two years has sapped social media of some of its power to “cancel” people and organizations; it’s still possible to gin up a mob, but it’s harder. And that has made Twitter itself less attractive to many users — after all, if you’re the type of person who likes to go on social media and blow off steam by denouncing the victim of the day, Twitter is now less fun of a video game.
And the fragmentation of social media itself is also going to make cancel mobs harder, simply because no single platform will seem like the arbiter of social opinion. In 2018, if someone told you that “they’re dragging you on Twitter”, that would be a genuine poop-your-pants moment for a random corporate manager or nonprofit head; now, if they’re dragging you on Twitter, maybe they still like you over on Threads. (And if they’re dragging you on Mastodon, who cares?) Without one “town square” for the whole world, it’s a lot harder for a single-platform dogpile to make it feel like the whole world is against you.
This is, of course, on top of the general shift to more private discussions (Signal, Discord, email) as people realize that public social media isn’t a safe place to talk.
So I think there will be a virtuous cycle now — or a vicious one, depending on your perspective. Twitter’s heyday was inextricably connected with a special time in American society, and the platform and the era will subside in tandem. Social ostracism will obviously remain an important feature of human society, and the permanency and anonymity of the internet will still have changed the game somewhat, but I think the Twitter Terror is on the way out.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I come down somewhere in the mushy middle of that question, as I often do. On one hand, the hierarchies of 2010 America had become ossified and stifling, and it was good to shine the light of public scrutiny into many of those dark corners. In particular, I think the #MeToo movement — so recognizably a product of Twitter that we still identify it with a hashtag — made real and substantial gains against the previously intractable problem of sneaky sexual harassment in the workplace. On the other hand, many “cancellations” have been undeserved. And a society can’t function on a day-to-day basis without some sort of stable local hierarchies; cancel culture made much of our society less effective. In general, the whole era held up a dark mirror to the American soul; that’s probably a thing that needs to happen from time to time, but I’m relieved it’s over now.
The Chaos Climbers will find it harder going
I don’t think Twitter has been particularly important for protest movements in the U.S. Yes, Black Lives Matter was sometimes spoken with a hashtag back in 2015, but the Floyd protests in 2020 were primarily organized not on Twitter but on Instagram, iMessage, and by good old word of mouth. The world has never had much difficulty organizing protest movements, and I don’t think the fragmentation of social media will make it any harder.
One thing Twitter’s decline and fragmentation will make more difficult, however, is for movements that exist primarily online to gain mindshare and traction. My favorite example of this is the tankies (communist imperialists) whom I wrote about in 2020. Many millions of Americans support BLM, or Trump, or the trans movement, etc., but to a rounding error, approximately no one out there in America is a tankie. The set of Americans sitting around hoping that China and Russia will conquer the U.S. and implement a workers’ paradise is confined to an incredibly tiny number of highly maladjusted young people scattered across the nation.
And yet thanks to Twitter, the tankies were able to gain mindshare and attention far greater than what they deserved. They never came anywhere close to even a smidgen of real power. But by the standard Twitter tactics of brigading and mass-retweeting, a few thousand individuals — many of them living outside the country or actual foreign government operatives — managed to force pundits and intellectuals to know what a “tankie” is, and grapple with their insane arguments. It’s hard to measure, but it’s not inconceivable that they managed to push American policy just a tiny bit away from a robust defense of Taiwan.
Tankies are one especially silly example of a more general phenomenon that I call Chaos Climbers”. This is a reference to a quote from the TV show Game of Thrones, in which a scheming lord declares that “chaos is a ladder”. If you want to gain a little bit of power in American society, either personally or for your movement, it helps if America is in a state of social chaos. Thus, a whole lot of bad people on the fringes of American politics on both the left and right found it fun and easy to amplify and aggravate unrest in the 2010s, in the hopes that this would ultimately redound to their benefit.
Twitter was a perfect place to do that. Its domination of public discussion in America meant that if you could get attention on Twitter, then you could spread vibes of unrest and calamity to all the journalists and politicians and intellectuals who mattered, as well as a broad swath of the general interested public. So you see a very high number of people on Twitter loudly proclaiming that everything is horrible and the world is collapsing around us. Here are two examples just from today, from the political left and right:
Both of these tweets are complete and utter nonsense. “Everyone is poor now” is just fantasy — real median household income is around $71,000. “We’re all dying” is technically true if you consider human mortality, but not in the sense that this person means. Meanwhile, life in the year 1469 was incomparably poorer, harder, and less comfortable than it is today.
Yet both of these absurd tweets had thousands of retweets, because A) bad news gets more attention than good, B) people like to come to Twitter to blow off steam, and C) political activists have an interest in convincing the world that society is collapsing. If you exist on Twitter, you see a lot of this crap all the time, and I doubt that’s going to change.
What will change, however, is that fewer people will be on Twitter. Threads and Bluesky have different vibes — Threads will naturally take on some of Instagram’s boring normie positivity, while Bluesky will be a lot of humor and banter. All the people who don’t feel like seeing pronouncements of doom every day will no longer have to accept those pronouncements as a cost of reading the news — they will be able to go somewhere where people aren’t spouting doom all day.
Which means the Chaos Climbers will find themselves talking more and more to each other, or to people who have already fully bought into their dark fantasies. If they go on Threads to try to replicate their end-of-the-world shtick, they’ll find much less of an audience, and migrate back to Twitter. It will be more difficult to traumatize and freak out the normies, because the normies will be able to escape.
The media will have to work hard again
I work in media, and I can definitely tell you that the decline and fragmentation is going to make my job harder. Twitter allowed me to know what everyone was talking about, which allowed me to analyze topics in a rapid, timely fashion — the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, or Prigozhin’s rebellion, or Balaji’s bet with James Medlock, etc. Twitter functions as my primary news aggregator; now I’m going to have to check not just Threads, but Google News and other sources.
But Twitter’s role as the universal news feed made it very easy for writers to mistake Twitter drama for actual news. Second-tier digital media outlets would use this to spam infinite content into the ether, but heavyweights like CNN would often write about Twitter controversies as well. Friends of mine in the media would lament the fact that Twitter had become “the assignment desk” for thousands of reporters. (That said, some of those same friends enjoyed my post about Balaji’s bet, so make of that what you will.)
This will be much harder in a world of fragmented discussion platforms. If the news-reading public is split between several platforms — or has disengaged from Twitter-like discussion platforms in general — then stories about what people are saying on Twitter, or on Threads or Bluesky, will get far fewer eyeballs. So writers will write fewer of these stories. Instead, deprived of their one-stop-shop for everything that’s going on, they will have to go back out and hunt around for items of interest.
I think that’s a good thing, because it’ll mean less herd behavior in the media.
Note that in essence, what this means is that the world of news and current events has gotten bigger. The internet shrinks the world, bringing faraway happenings to the screens in our pockets. Twitter in its heyday was the apotheosis of that shrinkage, seeming to compress the entire world into one feed. Of course it didn’t really; plenty was happening that didn’t make it onto Twitter. But the fact that most of the people who wanted to talk about news and events and ideas and opinions were on Twitter made it seem like all the world’s news and events and ideas and opinions were aggregated there.
So even if it was somewhat of an illusion, it felt like there was no reason to go anywhere else. No reason to read blogs if the posts didn’t appear in the Twitter feed. No reason to talk to people offline to discover what they thought. No need to travel to other countries and talk to the locals. All of planet Earth and the whole human race felt like it had collapsed into a black hole, right there on your screen.
Now that illusion is gone. It was getting harder to sustain over the last few years anyway, as more and more users drifted away from their Twitter accounts and fewer people tweeted out things that happened in their local neighborhoods. But now the illusion has been shattered forever by the simple fact that other feeds exist. No matter where you are right now, there is stuff that’s happening somewhere else.
Some might find that frustrating, but personally I find it incredibly liberating. The world is big again. There are new places to explore — not just new Twitter-type feeds, but all the places and people and happenings we ignored when we thought that feeds aggregated everything. There’s a great unknown world out there again, shrouded in mists, beckoning just over the horizon, filled with strange new subcultures to explore, strange new ideas to understand, strange new people to meet and befriend. We stumble out into the light, and our feet touch grass.