twitter thoughts, change thoughts.
We don’t choose who changes the world.
We only get to decide: Is it me?
Epistemic status warning: I haven’t been sleeping well, I lost the thread partway through and grabbed a different one and who knows whether anything holds together, these are preliminary thoughts, yes this is what my preliminary thoughts come out sounding like, no I’m not so attached to any of this shit that I don’t wanna hear intelligent disputation about it I’m just pompous you see, everyone says so. –wgh
Like a lot of people (within a narrow demographic band) I’ve been thinking a lot about Twitter. Over the last decade it’s eaten more of my time than any other meaningless distraction. It looms large in my daily experience, for bad reasons. It also was instrumental in getting me the 33-1/3 gig, and introduced me to a bunch of people I consider ‘online friends’ — a weird category and worth unpacking some other time. It entertained me. It destroyed my attention span.
I’m happy to see it go.
Everything good about Twitter was intimately bound up in everything bad about it — crucially, Twitter was not a ‘social’ network in a meaningful sense. Facebook is a ‘social’ network of sorts: you log in and have brief text conversations with your Facebook friends. They’re probably not your real friends, but your Facebook connections theoretically map onto real connections, and if Facebook usage tends to devolve into grandpas-sharing-memes, well, some of us are old enough to remember when commercial email was new and rare (and expensive) and email usage devolved readily to grandpas-sharing-chain-emails. Facebook in practice is a bad version of something good, owned by a cruel idiot, surveilled and manipulated into paranoid stupidity, monetized out of any real value — but under its shambling corpse is an older model of online sociality that might, in an alternate universe, have been something good for our species.
Twitter was never that. It was designed to be bad.
Most Twitter use worked on the ad-supported broadcast model, with ‘social’ interactions having even less importance or usefulness than the infamous blog comments sections you weren’t supposed to read. No one is under any illusions about this except ‘knowledge workers’ who got their only taste of status and visibility through Twitter: journalists, academics, political-media figures, et al. Facebook destroyed the economics of journalism, but Twitter hollowed out journalistic work itself; CNN is the cancer that ate American politics but Twitter represents its metastasis; online life has degraded over 25 years to a long game of hotornot.com but Twitter was built around that model. A lot of mistakes and bad intentions went into Twitter: thumbs-up without thumbs-down is profoundly stupid design that did great harm, the ‘you might like this…’ algorithm is clever but evil (i.e. ad-centric), engagement-only metrics are merely stupid/evil — Twitter was never a successful business and won’t be now, but its managers behaved in ordinary business-predator ways, iteratively ruining not only the one good thing about the site (its initial proposition: an RSS feed of your friends’ group text messages in reverse-chronological order) but everything superficially attractive about it. Prior to Elon Musk’s takeover of the service, Twitter was a shitshow, a ‘social’ service where it was impossible to have a sane conversation except by calving off an invite-only space (at which point you were almost certainly better off in an IRC channel or near-equivalent, e.g. a Slack/Discord instance).
The most popular Twitter accounts were pure publicity feeds: Obama, Musk, Bieber, Ronaldo, Taylor Swift, Modi(!), and for some reason the official Youtube account(??). The only remotely real human being in the top 50 accounts of all time is Musk himself. (For mental-health reasons he should have had his account taken away, but what can you do.) Interacting with humans was possible, but once a Twitter feed reaches a certain size it’s almost impossible to control what you’re seeing, at which point normal/healthyish people defocus and stop interacting almost entirely — making it very difficult to actually get the attention of any big account unless you were (1) big yourself or (2) a dedicated status-chaser, in which case (1) was your goal anyway. The network was built around status, attention, ‘engagement,’ which is why both malicious users’ unceasing river of bullshit and the company’s constant clumsy censorship (including well-documented shadowbanning) were inevitable. ‘Advertisers don’t want to be on “free speech” Twitter’ is a common observation among pseuds now, but the primacy of branding on Twitter was always the problem — ask anyone who made the mistake of looking to Twitter for political ‘news,’ and found nothing but court stenographers’ self-promotion…
Twitter was designed to be bad because it never had a way of making money except selling ads, and it predictably deformed around its revenue source. Pay-to-play networks can’t be ‘social’ in any meaningful sense.
That’s why I won’t miss Twitter. ‘Friends share SMS status messages to coordinate get-togethers at SXSW’ is a fine weekend web-dev project. ‘Tens of millions of people wake up and mindlessly scroll through broadcasts from strangers’ is obviously nothing but a distraction engine which is why status-seekers and advertisers liked it and everyone else routinely derided it as a stupid time-suck to which they were addicted and for which they’d consequently make every excuse in the book.
Hence the the current wave of melodramatic, performative Twitter nostalgia, a combination of resistance to change, justification for what everyone sane has long understood to be a destructive addiction — and branding, branding, branding. Twitter’s weird approach to virtual identity has had corrosive effects, and we’re seeing predictable celebrations from the people who’ve adopted it, ‘benefited’ from it, and now face the horrifying prospect of turning back into people.
the bird that could’ve flown
We don’t choose who changes the world.
Musk is a terrible human being, but he’s the only person with both the means to take Twitter private and the lack of impulse control to try it. And since Twitter is bullshit for a host of reasons which boil down to it being a publicly traded corporation chasing after ad money, this means that Elon Musk is the only person alive in a position to fix Twitter. He will fail, he is publicly failing right before our eyes even as I type — but think about what he could have offered to the world:
An open invitation, backed by $50,000,000,000 of funding, to take Twitter’s massive, frankly astounding network infrastructure and build something new on top of it.
Imagine having the keys to Twitter. What would you do? What would you pay hundreds or thousands of engineers to build? If you didn’t have to answer to shareholders or anyone else, if you had an effectively unlimited amount of money and a readymade infrastructure and the attention of the entire online world, with billions of users waiting to see what you’d do next, and if you could (for a minute) have had your pick of nearly any software developer on earth — if you actually cared about implementing the dream of an ‘Internet town square’ and could skip the entire startup-bootstrapping process and present your idea full-grown to the rest of our species — can you imagine what you’d do?
If you had more money than God and were deluded enough to think of yourself as an excellent tech-corp CEO instead of a lucky conscription-dodging legacy admit with a fake résumé, and someone handed you the keys, would you pass up that opportunity?
Musk just bought the right to deploy literally any software project he wants at Twitter scale. imagine what he could do. He’s making bad choices because he’s stupid, but what if he weren’t? If someone told you tomorrow, ‘You now own NASA. Do what you want,’ would you hesitate for even a second before putting people on Mars or something? I bet you would, and honestly that’s probably good. But Elon Musk, a dipshit conman so insecure he lies about his bachelors degree, demonstrably wouldn’t hesitate. He keeps actually doing insane things, his money protects him, and some of them — like brute-forcing the launch of the entire electric-car sector — will change and indeed improve human life to a degree we can’t yet fully comprehend.
We don’t get to choose who changes the world. We only get to choose to try it ourselves, or not. No one reading this, I imagine, will ever be in a position to effect change at Twitter-scale. But one reason for that is simple: no one reading this is actually committed to even trying for that goal.
Musk looked at Twitter, like so many of us, and thought: What else could this be? Because of his limitations, he came up with dumb answers and is tripping over himself to implement them in the dumbest, most destructive possible ways. He’s going to destroy Twitter by accident — and then one of the worst, most influential business executives in history will own billions and billions of dollars of digital infrastructure, with which he can do whatever the hell he wants… Tell me, if that guy offered you $200K/yr to build something else using Twitter’s tech and reach and userbase, would you take it?
A ‘self-actualized’ person is someone who lives intentionally, no longer in denial about her nature, her plans and impulses and desires aligned, or at least resolved. Unlike most people she’s…really here, not denying or escaping or sublimating but actually struggling with this moment, this world-in-progress as it actually is. You can ‘skip ahead’ to something that superficially resembles self-actualization by being a Musk/Trump-style piece of shit, having so much money and so few actual friends that you lose connection to humanity, but real self-actualization is peace, which isn’t the absence of conflict but rather the presence (or rather, the process) of harmony and resolution. Musk obviously isn’t a peaceful man, but he’s now in a position to act with almost total impunity, to honour his full self (if he had one). This is capitalism’s shitty simulacrum of peace, the glittering lure: it’s a bad thing that does good things by accident. Musk is late capitalism is human form, a trust-fund baby who uses his money solely to make increasingly large bets on a future that can’t be built any other way, not because they’ll help you and me but because that’s the way his ego is deformed, and everything good that comes of Musk’s predation and exploitation is a side effect.
This is capitalist ideology in a nutshell: your selfishness delivers benefits to us, greed increases freedom as a side effect (presentists and attention-dysregulated readers, cf. Sam Bankman-Fried and all of ‘effective altruism’ and indeed ‘rationalism’). ‘Trickle-down’ economics is just saying the quiet part of capitalism out loud, the rich need to get richer because ‘greed works,’ and it remains not just the social-ideological model of Silicon Valley but the psychological basis of the whole corporate world. That’s the deep-down justification — and note its reflection the current outbreak of Twitter-nostalgia, howls of longing for a world in which endless monologues into the void could take the place of the real (taxing, risky, slow, meaningful) communication that entities like Twitter have themselves destroyed, oh well…
Most people with delusions of grandeur accomplish nothing — but everyone who does anything grand will have, at moments, such delusions. Successful people tend not to get swept up in them, tend to avoid getting high on their own supply; peaceful people learn to avoid this trap entirely. But an awful lot of world-changing people are fucking nuts! And they get someplace legible and impactful to the rest of us by chasing their foolish notions and schemes and visions long past the point at which anyone else would have stopped. Do you think ‘Kim Kardashian’ is a good idea? Does anyone? Christ no. But even a product idea that bad can make a billion dollars if the people pimping it are clear-eyed about what they want and ruthless about pursuing it. That’s the ugly lesson that presumes the late-capitalist cult of accumulation, and it’s the weak vile analogue to the most beautiful idea, that no human is too far fallen to find peace through clarity, intention, and focus — right thinking right action etc., as somebody once said. We don’t get to choose who changes the world or how it’s changed, except that we get to choose (we must choose) to enact and embody that change ourselves. Which is the last thing the bosses like Musk want, and which is why the real questions to ask about Twitter — or about own your inexplicable and misguided decision to know and even care about the ‘Kim Kardashian’ line of near-human beings — are ‘What do I need?’ ‘What do I want?’ ‘What am I doing?’ Maybe you stay connected to the distraction-engine, sucking down toxic fumes and remaining in the fog of ‘Twitter brain’; maybe you turn off the TV when the Kardashian-family infomercial comes on; maybe we finish this goddamn manuscript; either way, the only healthy act is an intentional one, the thing Twitter was built and administered to take away from you, which can only come about through an alignment of means and ends and opportunity and luck (a superstitious nickname for ‘opportunity’).
There’s a universe, maybe not yet born, in which Twitter developed in accordance with a clear vision of a global ‘town square’ rather than an advertising platform trading in private user data. Elon Musk had the opportunity to bring it into being right here, right now, and he didn’t because he’s stupid and undisciplined.1 But he has some combination of traits which gave him that opportunity in the first place. And while we shouldn’t strive to emulate him — though I could live with being richer than Croesus — we might pay attention to the thing he superficially resembles, and take some lesson from his ongoing rise/fall.
And then stop paying attention to him altogether. Musk has stolen enough time from our species. He’s destroying Twitter, literally as I type, and it would take him and his several years to build something worthwhile on its ruins. To hell with them. Meanwhile an unexplored country is visible beyond. Maybe it’s easier to find peace in a new world outside the old. Maybe, with all the time that quitting Twitter is gonna free up, you’ll have a few minutes in which to try.
I’m @email@example.com for the time being, waxbanks most places I’m found online, tell me something new.
I want to add: Yes, Musk wanted not to buy Twitter and tried to get out of it. He’s impulsive and seems to’ve backed himself into it. I don’t think that’s incompatible with him having delusions of grandeur about running the place, or even ideas about what it might be; I’m sure they intertwine nicely with his persecution complex as Twitter burns down.
- ‘Wait I thought he was a “hardcore” sleep-at-the-office type?’ No, you’re thinking of the people he pays to buttress his reputation. Musk explicitly announced his intention to hand the Twitter reins over to a more committed CEO after completing the acquisition — and he’s notoriously both an impulsive micromanager and an absentee landlord with no attention to detail. Have you ever actually ridden in a fucking Tesla? ↩