Angelheaded Hipsters Burning for the Ancient Heavenly Connection

A requiem for the Twitter that could have been

Twitter never really understood what it had. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once described Twitter, the company, as “a clown car that fell into a gold mine.” The organization languished under Jack Dorsey’s leadership for years, stagnating, rolling out mild feature upgrades here and there that served mostly to annoy its users without adding very much by way of value, either to its users or to the company. It found itself hauled before the very same Congressional firing squads that were taking aim at Facebook, except without making Facebook kinds of money. Twitter injected themselves into a handful of social narratives and then, like most Twitter users who do the same thing, found themselves completely uncertain of what to do next. Twitter is a dog that keeps actually catching up to the mail truck.

Elon Musk is trying to buy the company now, and pending regulatory approval, it looks like he will be successful. At least, he will be successful in buying the company. It’s not clear at all that he’ll be any more successful at running it. After all, the clown car that drove into the gold mine might well have been a Tesla on Autopilot.

…who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge…

People call Twitter “social media” with casual ease, not really spending a moment to interrogate if a category error is being made. Twitter is unlike Facebook is unlike Tiktok is unlike Telegram, and so on. Posting a tweet on Twitter is a wholly different act than writing a post on Facebook. Facebook is heavier, its threading clunky, its interface perfectly calibrated to optimally commandeer your attention for exactly as long as is needed to maximize what it can take from you, and nothing more. Twitter is designed for discourse. A reply is simply a tweet stapled to another tweet; a thread, several stitched together in a bizarre discursive macramé. Twitter optimizes for brevity and volume; Twitter wants you to scroll, to doomscroll even, and to become immersed in the volume of content.

People call Twitter a social media site, but in reality it is a global chatroom. Twitter is optimized for throwaway bullshit. That’s not new. We have always had ways to revel in bullshit, we trafficked in irony and ennui smuggled in fixed-width font. We have always had an outlet for our most mundane thoughts, our passive bemusement at the absurdity of life. Twitter’s innovation was simply making it practical to put it all in one place, by abstracting away the complexity of whose bullshit you would see.

The internet is full of antique furnishings covered in dusty bedsheets. A quick glance at evokes pinprick memories for the generation that grew up on IRC and chatrooms. That era, as the top posts evince, was also unforgivably bigoted. The internet wasn’t available to everyone, then. It wasn’t practical for everyone. Through obscurity and hostility the gates were kept with hostile verve. The repositories of bullshit we used then were never on the evening news.

Twitter changed that. Twitter gave us an easy way to send our ephemera into the world, let us choose whose we saw, and gave us tools to amplify the best or worst of it on the very same platform with the very same mechanics. It never dissuaded us from it. In fact, its only really effective product changes over the years were tools like retweets, quote tweets, and threads, all of which made it easier to keep our quips flowing.

Twitter is a chatroom, and the problem that Twitter really solved was the discoverability problem. The internet is a big place, and it is shockingly hard to otherwise find people whose thoughts you want to read more of, whether those thoughts are tweets, articles, or research papers. The thing is, I’m not really sure that Twitter ever realized that this is the problem they solved, that this is where their core value lies. Twitter kept experimenting with algorithms and site layouts and Moments and other features to try to foist more discoverability onto the users without realizing that their users were discovering with the platform quite adeptly already. Twitter kept trying to amplify the signal without understanding that what users needed was better tools to cut down the noise.

…whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes…

Twitter, like many technology companies, fell into the classical trap by thinking that they, the technologists, were the innovators. Technologists today are almost never innovators, but rather plumbers who build pipelines to move ideas in the form of data back and forth with varying efficacy. Users are innovators, and its users that made Twitter unique. In fact, those features, like retweets, emerged from user behavior. Among all of the major “social networking” sites, Twitter is the only one that meaningfully handles in serious topics. Presidents use Twitter; tweets appear on the evening news, sit at the forefront of major investigations. Twitter has become the medium for debate and analysis. Facebook mastered the art of sharing and the art of arguing, but Twitter allowed people to mine the depths of content. Some of what was unearthed were diamonds, and some was coal, but Twitter is the only place where serious thinkers attempt to build a brand.

When the site is at its best, it serves as an incubator for new thinking. If you follow the right people, and use the right critical eye, you can read the news before it’s been written. Twitter, more than any other site, is a laboratory for journalism and scholarship. Though its users are rarely gentle, for those hearty enough to weather the feedback Twitter is a crucible of creation. But this same mechanism is also a springboard for the absolute worst synthesis you have ever encountered. This is not an accident. It tickles our bullshit centers. To every topic we précis our indignity. Such reactions are out of our control. If you’re clever enough, witty enough, you get a high score, and more people will then be raptured into the holy orbit of your public conscience. Twitter is a chat room with bash built in.

Nobody really needs to share their opinion on the Washington Post author who took indecipherable aim at the cultural transgression of stretchy pants on airplanes. But then, neither should said author stand to gain anything from lobbing this moral grenade into the opinion section of one of America’s most important newspapers. What honestly do we stand to gain from this transaction? The Washington Post gains. Twitter gains. Clicks are value. Outrage is attention. Attention is the last earthly resource that individuals are the keepers of. Everything else is taken over by corporations. Attention is the only means of production we still control.

Twitter never really did figure out this pattern of synthesis-analysis-synthesis. Users flurry screenshots of the article of the moment around Twitter, destroying searchability and accessiblity. Journalists have adapted their writing style to optimize for a pullquote that fits comfortably in an iPhone screen. Twitter could have done so much more. They could have built an API that allows users to quote articles with text. They could have realized that what made the site unique is that we want to relate to ideas. They didn’t understand that we don’t want to share content, we want to share our own interpretations and validations of wisdom. We want to create, not produce! Above all, we want to share the naked joy that someone else is pleased with what we created.

…who reappeared on the West Coast investigating the FBI in beards and shorts with big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing out incomprehensible leaflets…

We called it Web 2.0 when we shifted the dynamics of the chatrooms away from strange corners of an inaccessible Internet and onto the global stage. Celebrities began to join in. You could talk to them. If something in the news pissed you off, you could yell at the journalist directly, rather than writing a letter to the newspaper. This was powerful. And we called it Web 2.0 because we thought we had invented something new.

Twitter, the organization, was convinced of this more than anyone. They had to be. But as time marched on, it became clear that Twitter didn’t really understand what it had built, how it was used, or what is was being used for. For years, we watched as doe-eyed star hires proudly announced their leading roles in the company. They were going to fix things! They were going to take feedback! Twitter wasn’t perfect, but gosh darn it, it was going to try to be better.

But it was clear that these people didn’t really use the platform in the way that the platform drove its power. They hopped on board the Twitter train thinking they were going to be conductors, only to find that they were merely passengers. Time after time, we watched as these bright stars burned out, quietly leaving the company to pursue another journey.

Technologists are never the innovators. Users are the innovators. If you watched how Twitter evolved from 30,000 feet, you could see the growth of citizen journalism. You could watch as activists would shape entire conversations about politics, industry. Open source investigators collaborated in the open and outperformed the world’s best law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The platform changed entertainment and culture. It allowed revolutionaries to network, and helped the state crush them. It allowed hate and genocidal ideology to spread. It legitimized conspiracy theories that have permanently scarred our world.

Twitter wanted all of the credit for the innovation and none of the credit for the impact, when the reality was the other way around. Time after time, they came right up to the limit of acknowledging that, always to turn away at the last moment. Whatever happens in the coming months with Elon Musk’s attempt to buy the company, the Board has sent a clear and unambiguous message: Twitter will never cross that line, it is tired of being asked to, and now it will never even try.

…Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!

Most debates try to locate Twitter’s place in the broad framework of free speech. We debate as to whether it is a Town Square, debate whether it should be. We debate the meaning of free speech, and how Twitter has threatened the design limits of the legal and social trusswork that creak and groan as they attempt to support that particular nugget of democracy. This, too, is a mistake, and not least because these debates tend to be polluted with the uniquely American lens on the ethics of free speech.

Free speech is rightfully the most sacred American value, one that has been codified in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. But the First Amendment is much broader than simply a constitutional guarantee against prosecution. It grants the right to pray as you please, something which was, at the time of its writing, one of the major axes of personal identity. Crucially, it also grants the right to petition one’s government for a redress of grievances. All this is to say, that if we insist on using American free speech values in the debate over the governance and direction of a global platform, we would do well to include the entire story. The ability be as you are and to seek justice is as essential to free speech as the freedom from government persecution. These things must coexist.

If we are to position Twitter as a Town Square, we should consider that Town Squares were rarely designed as free speech fora. Town squares historically arose from civilization’s tendency to self-organize; they emerged as a gathering space where people could connect with people, for trade, for celebration, for ritual. Town squares arose from humanity’s need to form community. If Twitter wants to position itself as a Town Square, it must focus not on “free speech,” but on the development of community and to improve the features and tooling to allow users to self-select them. This of course includes better tools for users to moderate their community spaces according to self-defined standards.

Twitter has resisted these calls in the past, and it is unlikely that the organization will suddenly embrace them under Elon Musk’s leadership. Musk exhibits a child’s understanding of free speech. More likely, he will drive the company mercilessly to chase KPIs or OKRs or whatever capitalist numerology that he and his advisors can grasp instead of understanding the platform dynamics. This usually means pumping engagement, seeking to leverage outrage and our generational burden to be fully informed about subject matters that fall well outside our rightful ambit. You can’t be different people in different contexts on Twitter, even though this is how most of us live our everyday lives. You have to be all people at all times to all other people on Twitter, the platform. This is the antithesis of community. Ultimately, it will be undoing of Twitter, the company.

…where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep…

It may be time for Twitter to have its undoing. Twitter has made too many things too easy for too long. The subtitle of Zeynep Tufekci’s fantastic book, Twitter and Tear Gas is “the power and fragility of networked protest.” We have constructed the scaffolding of our influence networks on a cracked foundation. It’s too easy to build a brand there. It’s too often at the expense of building more durable relationships. More important, it’s at the expense of building a scalable, stable framework from which we can advance our craft.

Twitter has done great things. They’ve blown away the barriers that prevented ordinary people from obtaining access to the drivers of culture, politics, and news. It’s allowed us a real good look at the emperor’s clothes. Individuals have more opportunity than ever before to become agents of substantive change. Through it we could learn so much more, do so much more, become so much more. It’s the most accessible, widespread chatroom that has ever been built.

There is a time for builders and a time for breakers. Twitter allowed us many of us to become breakers. Web 2.0 let us speak truth to power at scales never before seen. But it struggled to let us also become builders, because it was so easy for anyone, any community, to be broken. Regardless of how, or if, Musk’s acquisition pans out, to me one thing is clear: the groundwork for what comes next must now be laid. In the end, I think it’s the most exciting time in technology I’ve seen in years.

Excerpts from “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg republished without permission under fair use principles.

Posted: 28.04.2022

Built: 24.06.2024

Updated: 06.08.2023

Hash: aa85e05

Words: 2501

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes