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Itâ€™s hard sometimes to distinguish at this point in the year the shortening days and receding green from a sense of some impending seismic shift whose consequences one canâ€™t yet clearly seeâ€”especially after a few years in which seismic shifts have come upon us with alarming regularity.
The dismantling of Elon Muskâ€™s Twitter, for instance, has been thrust into the consciousness of the 77 percent of AmericansÂ who donâ€™t use the platformÂ by the excessively audible 23 percent of Americans who do. It seems either Muskâ€™sÂ blessingÂ or curse that this particular â€œpublic square,â€ as Twitter has perhaps wishfully been called, has become so central to the lives of the very people who could most vocally protest its demolition, journalists. Semafor, the news outlet recently launched by formerÂ New York TimesÂ media columnist and BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith,Â declared majestically, â€œTwitter may be the most important company in theÂ historyÂ of news.â€ Journalists wrestled to explain their affection for the site they had long derided, even as their eyes stayed glued to the screen. AsÂ James Fallows put it, Twitter had â€œthe virtues of old-style blogging, or even older-style reader mail, with much greater breadth and immediacy. Tips and insights from a variety of sources, connections you might not have developed in other ways, a real-time sensory network for breaking news.â€
Brent Staples arguedÂ that Twitter had forced journalism to become more accountable to formerly marginalized audiences. ReporterÂ Olivia MesserÂ and publishing-watcherÂ Jane FriedmanÂ described how important the site, even its internal messaging system, were for their achieving visibility as young writersâ€”even, in Messerâ€™s case, for dating prospects. It has been an effective medium for shock purveyors to amplify their message for the very reason that journalists have lurked there so compulsively and so reliably projected back to us the world they find there as our own.Â Critic Bob Lefsitz wrote recentlyÂ with blistering sarcasm that journalists are so woebegone at the possible demise of Twitter because they have lost touch with their audiences and donâ€™t know to whom they are speaking when not speaking to each other there. Looking back it may seem that Twitter, like Napster, provided something that seemed great at the time at an intolerable cost. The company had only made money for one year of its life and there does seem some remote possibility that Musk actually has an idea of how to make it work as a business, though probably not one that answers these writersâ€™ yearnings.
Is Twitter near the end?
While engineers familiar with the problems that arise in very large complex systems when they are not properly maintained make the end of Twitter under Muskâ€™sÂ erratic ruleÂ sound imminent,Â seasoned tech observers cautionÂ that the end, if it is the end, will probably be prolonged, even as major participants are threatening to decamp.Â CBS News announced it was leavingÂ the platform on Friday night, only to be back by the end of the weekend, as the accounts ofÂ Donald TrumpÂ andÂ Kanye West, who had been suspended for violating Twitterâ€™s terms of service, were being peremptorily restored. Macyâ€™sÂ suspended Thanksgiving Day parade advertising, the huge ad company OmniconÂ advised clientsÂ to pause spending on Twitter, andÂ Group M elevated itÂ to â€œhigh riskâ€ for brand safety. On Sunday it emerged thatÂ Twitterâ€™s copyright system is down, apparently allowing unlimited distribution of copyrighted material. Muskâ€™s one identifiable product innovation, allowing users to purchase identity verification, led toÂ a flood of scams and impostersÂ and had to beÂ indefinitely suspended.
Itâ€™s interesting to me that many of the alternatives to Twitter floated by its media-world denizens involve stepping away from Twitterâ€™s high-speed, short-take character and toward more deliberative forms of reading and intentional ways of gathering. Folks are speaking again of blogs, and RSS feeds, and news aggregators, as well as closed communication loops like group chats and discord servers. The most commonly recommended replacement site, the open-source, not-for-profit platform Mastadon (descriptorÂ here), has a longer maximum character count and is praised by enthusiasts for its more reflective tone. Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of our own newsletter platform Substack,Â wroteÂ of the end of Twitter: â€œWe believe that the next era of the social internet will be about deep relationships over shallow engagement; signal over noise; and,â€ referring to the fact that social media sites like Twitter sell ads on top of your uncompensated intellectual property, â€œownership over serfdom.â€ CriticÂ Ted Gioia citedÂ statistics about declining social media engagement and argued that slow reading, like his Sicilian grandmaâ€™s cooking, is making a comeback.Â Max Read wrote, â€œThereâ€™s a lot to celebrate about the prospect of freeing journalism and publishing from a worldview over-shaped by the rewards and perils of aÂ highly competitive reputation economy.â€
For those of us starting small media organizations, Twitter was certainly the most effective way of reaching reading people, especially as Facebook curtailed opportunities for organization accounts and focused (supposedly) on â€œfriends and familyâ€ and videos. IllustratorÂ Bree Lundberg was among many to say, â€œPlease please if youâ€™re thinking of leaving twitter in light of it being sold to you-know-who, bookmark the sites/shops and join newsletters of artists you like!! We rely on social media for freelance and sales, donâ€™t forget about us.â€ Also: Twitter was finally a word-based mediumâ€”it attracted word-oriented customers. As Alex MadrigalÂ tweeted, laments for the loss of Twitter are informed by writersâ€™ anxiety â€œabout our declining relevance on an internet that has turned largely visual with a side-helping of audio.â€Â Unlike TikTokÂ and Instagram, Twitter can â€œlink outâ€ to the longer form writing where ideas can grow beyond 280 characters.
Everyone wants to be TikTok
As all the social media makers hustle after TikTokâ€™s viral video-based algorithmic feed like their very own Pied Piper, the written word gets shorter and shorter shift on the worldâ€™s devices. In July parent company MetaÂ discontinuedÂ Facebookâ€™s once-much-heralded contracts for compensating (somewhat) newsgathering organizations for the content offered up by users that the platform sells advertising against.Â â€œMost people do not come to Facebook for news,â€ a spokesperson said bluntly in an emailed statement, â€œand as a business it doesnâ€™t make sense to over invest in areas that donâ€™t align with user preferences.â€ In a related decision,Â Press Gazette reported earlier this monthÂ that Facebook will by 2024 remove the fifteen journalists currently responsible for curating their â€œnewsâ€ tab and replace them with artificial intelligence. This comes amidst reports that, as Facebook wrestles with a way to adhere to calls for suppressing misinformation, the AI that it tries to pass such work off onto consistentlyÂ downgrades the real newsÂ with the fake.
The role of advertising in determining what we see has in recent weeks looked more benign than usualâ€”Musk cannot alienate advertisers, his main source of revenue, too much with a toxic platformâ€”but sociologistÂ Zeynep Tufecki reminds usÂ that ultimately it is advertisingâ€™s deepest desideratumâ€”keep your eyes on the screenâ€”that feeds the dangerous algorithmic incentive to serve up content that quickens our pulse and stokes friction. Metaâ€™sÂ big bet on virtual realityÂ is also a shift away from words and crafted messages into spontaneous real-time experience. As most tech companies tighten belts and lay off employees (10,000 plus fromÂ Amazon; 11,000Â from Meta, or 13 percent of its workforce; 1,200Â from Snap, 20 percent of its workforce; in addition to the famous now 4,800Â from Twitter, almost two-thirds of its workforce), video-sharing TikTokÂ is hiring.