Monday, November 14, 2022

Twitter: The burning library

This is my first post in nine months. I'm not entirely sure how that happened. For me, this has been a fairly uneventful time - no pets or family members have died, and my job continues as before, with the only change being that I am in the office every Monday, where the fraction of us in the building are all masked and physically distanced from each other. My dental issues continue - I have had two root canals in the last nine months, and am looking at at least two more in the next few months, assuming I can sort out some insurance problems (like my insurance company consistently telling my endodontist that I have no active policies with them, an insurance company that my endodontist will no longer be accepting after the new year.)

In the Big Wide World these have been an eventful few months. The January 6 committee has dropped bombshell after bombshell, though the practical upshot of their revelations remains to be seen. Russia went from conducting "exercises" on the border with Ukraine and pooh-poohing any suggestions that they were planning an invasion, to conducting a full-scale invasion and declaring it a "special military action," to claiming they were acting to save the Russian-speaking population of the areas they were busy bombing into dust, to getting their asses kicked by the Ukrainian resistance, to declaring the annexation of large swaths of Ukraine, regions which they have subsequently retreated from in the face of relentless Ukrainian armed resistance. Republicans declared their intention of a "Red Wave" in the November mid-terms, but so far it looks like they may at best have a tie in the Senate and have gained a slim majority in the House - a history-defying failure of the Party in charge to lose a large number of seats in the House and Senate.

And Elon Musk bought Twitter.

Historians will possibly have a better understanding of how this happened, but here's what I recall and what I have heard:

- Early in 2022, Musk wanted to buy his way onto the Twitter board. They said sure, as long as you agree to provide these disclosures, allow us to do these background checks, and promise to abide by these rules of conduct. Musk said no.

- Shortly after that, Musk put in a bid to buy Twitter outright at a preposterous price, an offer that could not be refused. He quickly tried to retract the offer when he claimed he "discovered" that the majority of profiles on Twitter are fakes. This resulted in months of negotiation and maneuvering, with many Twitter users wishing Musk would just go away, and many Musk fans wanting him to take control of the platform immediately. In the end Musk had two options: he could walk away from the deal if and only if he paid a penalty of one billion dollars, or he could follow through and purchase Twitter for forty-four billion dollars. 

- On October 28, 2022 Musk announced that he had purchased Twitter.

Almost as soon as he took over, Twitter was overrun by accounts posting racist and antisemitic slurs. Many of these were from brand-new, zero-follower accounts. The goal appeared to be to overwhelm the content moderation system, with legitimate Twitter users reporting the offensive accounts a dozen at a time. It was around this time Musk retweeted a right-wing conspiracy theory regarding the brutal hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, the eighty-two year old husband of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Twitter advertisers, already wary of buying advertising space on a site run by someone as erratic and unpredictable as Elon Musk, started to pull their ads and refrain from purchasing any more, leading Musk to threaten to "go thermonuclear" on companies that refuse to buy advertising space on Twitter.

The chaos that has ensued in the past two-plus weeks is a matter of record, and like much recent history, future students of history will find it almost completely unbelievable. In that short time Musk has managed to destroy both Twitter and his own reputation. Rather than doing the sort of things most non-CEOs of multiple major corporations assume that CEOs of multiple major corporations do, he has spent much of that time "shitposting," sending out tweets designed to earn the approval of his fans and attacking his enemies. He has tweeted out (and deleted) conspiracy theories. He has ballyhooed his commitment to free speech and even announced "Comedy is now legal again," and then permanently blocked the accounts of comedians who made him the butt of their savage humor. And he has fired thousands upon thousands of employees, many of them immigrants whose lawful presence in the U.S. is dependent on their continued employment.

Amidst all the chaos, many prominent and popular Twitter users have decided to close their accounts and move elsewhere.

The combination of an erratic new owner who seems uninterested in the continuing existence of the social media site he just bought for $44 billion, rumors about the ulterior motives of his financial backers, the loss of both advertising revenue and institutional knowledge carried by thousands of fired programmers and administrators, and Musk's tendency to announce "new rules" targeting those who criticize or challenge him, have led many users to wonder if they are living though Twitter's last days. Many have announced their departure for Mastodon, a competing social media site with some well-documented clunkiness and technical limitations. Others are heading to Instagram, or TikTok, or their Substacks and even old-school blogs.

In Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams compared efforts to document species on the brink of extinction to someone running through the burning Library of Alexandria, furiously scribbling down the titles of burning books in an effort to save some fragment of what was contained within. It would be preposterous to compare the loss of Twitter to that, even with all the unique content and historical records contained in it. Others have compared the current situation to the classic movie trope of the 80's and 90's where a heartless developer is buying the local recreational center with plans to tear it down and replace it with an office building. Sadly, it's looking like this sort of thing won't be fixed with a dance-off or talent show. I'm collecting names and alternate site addresses for when and if Twitter ends.

When I first joined Twitter I hated it. It felt to me like a wide open space filled with people driving through and shouting snippets of conversation in passing through their rolled-down windows. But in time I have come to appreciate and embrace its randomness, its chaotic nature. Half the people I follow I have followed because of a single clever post or comment. I have become familiar with eel historians, geologists, birders, lizard biologists, pig fanciers, fabric historians, astronomers, crafters, a goofy ventriloquist camgirl/philanthropist, social and political activists, on-the-spot reporters, writers, artists, poets, humorists, comedians, musicians, and people from every walk of life. This is the unique site, the unique society, that Elon Musk is destroying through his capriciousness - or through his arrogant stupidity.

Will there ever again be anything else quite like it?