14 November 202215 November 2022 Technology / social media Doing dumb things: the problem with leaving Twitter Rob Horning Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, it has been unclear whether the platform can survive. Not only is its ad-based business model failing and its debt increasingly hard to service, but mass firings and staff departures make it unclear who will maintain basic aspects of its functionality. Musk himself, seemingly off the top of his head, has proposed and reversed himself on a series of changes to the site—in a tweet he promised that ‘Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months,’ if it even lasts that long. This has accomplished the goal of keeping him in headlines but has brought little clarity to the company’s potential future. The main focus of Musk’s whimsy has been Twitter’s verification system, which puts a blue checkmark next to the names of those users whose offline identity the company has seen fit to confirm. This process has allowed certain aspects of the site to resemble conventional journalism and provided various promoters, celebrities, crypto tycoons, and so on a means to credibly make their assurances or apologies. Musk has decided to turn verification into a revenue source by charging a monthly subscription fee for access to it and an associated set of benefits involving prioritisation in how Twitter circulates and moderates content. In effect, this means that failing to be verified will result in being consigned to the Twitter equivalent of a spam folder, an unusable dumping ground likely to be overrun with bots, scams, scatology, and worse. In some respects, this proposal resembles racketeering. After all the labour that users have already sunk into their profiles—cultivating a persona, building a following, training the algorithms, and all the rest—Twitter is threatening to hold hostage all the social and reputational capital they have built and on which they may depend on for jobs and income. At the same time, the proposal has already made that capital less efficacious, because the platform as a whole has become less reliable and less populated with those people whose attention verified users ultimately need. He has already suggested that Twitter’s bankruptcy may be imminent. Wouldn’t it be a shame if it all that hard work dwindled to nothing because you wouldn’t pay to protect it? In conflating verification with subscription models, Musk at first tried to implausibly sell the idea that charging users for access served a kind of democratisation: No more elites! Everybody pays to play. By this logic, no one was ever really verified for protection; they were merely demanding preferential treatment out of sheer vanity and status-seeking. But verification doesn’t simply serve the verified. It establishes a baseline of accountability and attribution for what people post, for better or worse. Musk’s intention of charging people for Twitter (in his first email to the company’s remaining employees he wrote that he expects half of Twitter’s income to come from subscriptions) implies that attention should not be earnable but should be for sale and rich people should be able to buy more of it—the principle by which his own life seems to be organised. Attention, in other words, should serve entirely as a proxy for existing wealth and power and as a means for extending it—it should not be available for any other agenda. This conception makes for a platform that has literally nothing to do with ‘free speech’ but where anybody can pay to promote any message as though it were coming from anyone anywhere—a marketplace of ersatz ideas. And if you make a market of the market’s own ground rules—as selling verification would do—you don’t end up with a fairer system but with universal corruption. This has already played out in the many ironic ‘verified’ accounts for companies and political figures (and for Musk himself) tweeting out all sorts of jokes and nonsense. It’s not clear why current users would pay to subscribe to a Twitter on which everything was sponsored content, and not just the ads. Musk told advertisers in a Twitter Spaces forum that he wants the site to be a ‘digital town square’ where ‘80 percent of humanity’ can interact ‘in a positive way’ with ‘words’ rather than ‘violence.’ But the subscription-based, explicitly tiered version of Twitter—who knows how many levels of verification it will end up with?—will look even less like that than it currently does. In practice, Musk seems to hope that a sufficient number of Twitter users are addicted to the site—not only to its waves of drama, attention, and abuse but also to how it imposes its mores, hierarchies, and now its fees on them. Such a view allows us to romantically imagine the open-source, decentralised Twitter alternative Mastodon as the opposite of this: whereas Twitter users are ‘masochists’ (as Musk has tweeted), the Mastodon ‘fediverse‘ would allow addicted users to become genuine people again, capable of democratically debating the moderation standards of their communities in various citizens’ councils for all of perpetuity. A few weeks ago, I got caught up in the Twitter fleeing frenzy and signed up for a Mastodon account, but like many others, I’ve found it confusing and disorienting, less like Twitter and more like an underpopulated Discord chat. It appears to be customisable in all sorts of ways, but I’ve never turned to Twitter to express my freedom of choice. Twitter was more like weather—something to cope with and complain about but not control. If I could control it, it wouldn’t be weather but mood music. In his own way, Musk, too, promises a kind of consumerist Twitter where users can buy the kind of experience they want to have—where, in Matt Levine’s words, ‘some people will choose a Twitter that is optimized for getting in fights and others will choose a Twitter that is optimized for keeping up with celebrity news or whatever.’ But that would contradict its masochistic appeal: you don’t optimise Twitter for an entertaining experience (the way TikTok’s algorithm purportedly optimises its feed) but instead come to bear witness to all sorts of encounters and trends that you can still try to disavow. That is, the dynamic that binds users to the site isn’t that it functions as some Habermasian ideal speech situation; it’s that it mediates unpredictable and often unfair forms of conflict, with partly obscured and ever-shifting stakes, facilitating the gossip and malice as well as the glimpses at what a disparate range of people think is happening now. As much as I still rely on Twitter, using the site has also trained me to think of the whole practice of social media as cynical and corrupt, something that could only persist in a commercially incentivised form (it’s all hustling and self-promotion, all performing opinions) or as a bad habit with its own established momentum. I felt compelled to check Twitter because it felt like an easy way to be social without being social. But this in turn has shaped how I conceive of society itself, and myself as a dumb thing being manipulated within it. Twitter could be seen as a warped microcosm of society in all its opacity and injustice—not as a matter of ‘communities’ and ‘sharing ideas in the public sphere’ but as the experience of negation and contradiction, of the unresolvable tension between individuality and collectivity, between freedom and compulsion. One can more directly and tangibly experience the domination they are subject to in often inscrutable, all-encompassing ways and even try to intervene in it, sometimes effectively, most times not. Without that tension, social media sites wouldn’t seem relevant but trivial, as faddish as some commentators are now pronouncing them to be. If Twitter survives at all, it may retain none of that tension, becoming a place where people straightforwardly pay to broadcast their messages, like the classifieds in a twentieth-century newspaper. There would be no social stakes of belonging, no vulnerabilities worth tolerating or trying to manage. The Twitter debacle, as well as Meta’s recent stock collapse, seems to have reawakened that fantasy that something could happen that would subtract ‘social’ from ‘media’ and make them operate separately again (as if it were ever the case that there was an unmediated form of ‘true’ sociality). Ian Bogost at The Atlantic and Edward Ongweso Jr. at Vice want to pronounce social media dead, as if the novel kinds of desire and pleasure that the platforms have brought into being by joining conviviality with scale and asynchrony could simply be rolled back and forgotten. Social media hybridised feelings of isolation, participation, and submergence in a mass; the platform companies commodified these possibilities and largely subsumed sociality in the process for everyone, regardless of whether they used social media personally. It’s tempting to think that this was an aberration or a mass delusion, and that the fundamental and universal principles of human social connection will now reassert themselves as the tech companies evil business models fail. But it seems more likely that social media platforms accurately reflect the particular society that produced them in the intertwined pleasures and frustrations they deliver and the commercial milieu that animates them. What alternative platforms like Mastodon may require to succeed is not just some critical mass of users or some broader fluency in how to navigate them. They will need to facilitate some of the frustration and antagonism that their developers may have aspired precisely to forestall. Image: Rosaura Ochoa Rob Horning Rob Horning is a former editor of New Inquiry and Real Life. He writes about media and technology at robhorning.substack.com. More by Rob Horning Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 27 February 2023 Reviews Freeing the arts from the markets: a reading of Chokepoint Capitalism Lizzie O'Shea On one read, chokepoint capitalism is really just plain old capitalism. 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