On the Death of Twitter
Why Twitter Dying This Way Feels So Wrong
Where Are We as a Civilization? The World’s Richest Man Just Killed its First Utility and Community
Written by Umair Haque and published in Medium.com 11/18/2022
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Like many people, you might have awoken today to find #RIPTwitter trending on…Twitter. Like I predicted, Twitter’s collapsing at record speed.
To bring you up to date, the Gross and Awful Billionaire who bought it promptly delivered a bizarre, macho, steroidal, tech-bro ultimatum to its employees — they were told be “hardcore” or…quit. In an email, no less, to which they had to literally tick a box pledging their….loyalty? Hardcoreness? What is this, a cult? A paramilitary? Abusive management to say the least, and unsurprisingly, there was a mass exodus. And now Twitter’s future is in serious doubt — because these were the folks who kept its critical systems alive. And nobody can blame them for not wanting to keep on being demeaned and abused like that, and this is just week two.
And yet even that barely begins to sum it all up. I’ve been thinking about it. Why is Twitter dying this way so…wrong? It’s an especially striking, ignominious fate. There are good and bad ways to die, and this? This is an ugly way to die.
But why is that, exactly? Here’s what occurred to me.
Think about our world today. We have grave and serious problems, and all of us who are sane and thoughtful people know that — from climate change to mass extinction to ecological collapse, all of which are fueling an inflationary spiral, as our civilization runs out of basics. But there’s another kind of Big Problem that we face, too. Only this one’s an absence — and so it’s harder to spot, because, well, it’s about a thing that’s not there.
What don’t we have? Look around the world. We don’t have a single functioning global system. A worldwide utility, if you like. We don’t have, say, a global system of super-high-speed underground trains that whisk you from Paris to New York in hours. We barely even have regular old high-speed trains linking countries. You can get from Paris to Barcelona in a few hours on the TGV — and that’s a major accomplishment. But it points to what we don’t have.
Here are a few more examples to make the point. What else don’t we have? We don’t have, say, a global system of roads, even. For many countries, highways don’t or barely exist, and building one is a major accomplishment that only recently happened. In plenty of nations, just having one or two is a Big Deal. Or, I don’t know, bridges. We don’t have huge mega-scale bridges linking countries, except for a tiny, tiny handful of examples, like the Oresund Bridge, which links Sweden and Denmark.
We have no global systems — utilities — at all. Think about the idea of civilization for a moment — the very thing that billionaires, ironically, preach about saving. Where should we be at this juncture in human history? Well, one criterion of a genuinely advanced civilization is surely planetary utilities. Just go down the list of what you already consider utilities. Education for everyone, transportation, healthcare, energy, and so forth. We don’t have a single one of those. We barely have them at the national level, so far. Not one is a worldwide utility, because in our civilization, there aren’t any…yet.
Twitter was something genuinely like the first worldwide utility. We don’t have ultra-high-speed transportation for everyone. We don’t have education, energy, even shelter for everyone. Not even food. Those things don’t exist as utilities yet — though some do as great global goals institutions like the UN have. The only example of anything close to a worldwide utility so far in human history has been…Twitter.
We’re used to thinking of it as the world’s public square. And critics are quick to poke holes in that definition. I myself have been included on that list. It’s not really a public square — LOL, it’s a company!! Yes, I know. Twitter might not have been the formal definition of “global public square” — but practically, in the real world, that’s what it was…trying to be. As in that’s how people used it.
People used Twitter just like the first proper worldwide utility. Have a phone, tablet, computer? Cool. Just…sign up. Log in. It’s free. Anyone from anywhere can join. And…get on the information superhighway. Sorry, that’s a hackneyed phrase, to some, maybe. But in this case, it was true. Think about how Twitter acted just like, well, you might expect a worldwide informational utility to.
You log in. And within seconds, you know. Is there some kind of emergency somewhere? Did a disaster strike here? Was there a tragedy there? Did this person who’s a household name pass away? One minute, five — and you’re caught up on the great tides of information sweeping the world that day, that hour.
And you could go even deeper if you really wanted to. How are people feeling about all that? What do they think about it? How’s the mood out there in the world today? Jesus, what, half a country’s underwater because of a mega-monsoon? Wow, inflation’s how high? Man, I feel anxious, worried, but maybe I’m not so alone in all that.
Now. It’s not a surprise, really, to the economist in me, that the thing that was like, being used like, evolving towards, the first worldwide utility, was informational. It makes perfect sense if you think about it. Building a network of underground ultra-high-speed trains linking the major cities of the world is hard. Expensive. We don’t know how to do it, and we probably can’t power it without advances in renewable energy first, not to mention we don’t know how to finance such a thing, really. Information, on the other hand, is cheap. We can manipulate it in computers for fractions of pennies, and deliver it to you at a marginal cost of pretty close to zero. Those economics mean that information was always going to be the first worldwide utility.
You might say, well, so what? Who cares about “the first worldwide utility,” anyways? The answer to that is that every sane person does, even if they don’t know it. Because apart from those of us who’ve opted out of it entirely, the rest of us all want to live in an advanced civilization. Even the Awful Billionaire’s fans do — that’s exactly why they buy into his humanity-saving schtick. An advanced civilization is one that “saves humanity” precisely through things like worldwide utilities. And when those things are real, we’re all going to be better off, because of course that much more possibility is unlocked. Maybe that kid in some slum in India is going to be the next Einstein, now that he can get an education, books, shelter, food.
We all care about this, even if we haven’t really every thought about it, unless we’re a) liars b) dolts or c) sociopaths.
Twitter had problems. It’s true. It always did. And yet this moment is so poignant because in another way, it really was a high point for our civilization. The first something-like-a-global-utility in history, really. Where else, after all, could you go and just…interact…with people from around the globe, renowned, accomplished, intellectuals, journalists, writers, thinkers, artists, scientists, athletes, people living the experiences you were hearing about…getting information directly from them? Nowhere, really. We underestimate just what an accomplishment Twitter really was — and I don’t mean that in just the technological sense, that part was relatively easy. I mean it in the sense of millions of people came together to build something like a global community, which transcended boundaries of every kind.
When else has that ever really happened?
Now, that doesn’t mean that Twitter didn’t have a Big Troll Problem. Sure it did. Of course it did. There you were, excited to be able to talk to, I don’t know, this writer, that athlete, to get information about this or that, to share your feelings or opinions — and along would come some crazy a-hole and start threatening you with the kind of extreme violence that make Jeffrey Dahmer blush. And yet despite that, millions of people still came together to build a global community.
Think about that for a second.
All of that, of course, brings me to the cruel twist in the tale. Why does it feel so wrong, so gross, so actually repulsive for Twitter to die this way? Even for those who were kind of sick of Twitter’s descent into hate and disinformation — and I’ll come back to that? Because millions of people came together to build a global community…and the world’s richest man destroyed what they built in two weeks.
Or at least began to.
Let’s go back to the “town square” thing. What is a town square? On one level, it’s just a…stones and buildings. Take away the people, and a town square isn’t much of anything. When we say “town square,” we don’t really just mean the architecture — we mean the interaction. If I say “town square,” you don’t think “Oh, a place where Nazis hurl racist abuse at people and threaten the rest with rape and murder.” You think of a place where people are laughing and chatting and having coffee and walking their dogs and maybe even doing the promenade, dressing up nicely to see and be seen. A town square is about people. More precisely, it’s about the kinds of connections between people.
When I go to my favorite little European town square, with little Snowy, what happens? We were just there today. And there, a certain set of rules exist. Strangers stop and laugh and giggle. Your dog is so cute! Come say hi, I encourage them. Snowy grins up them. His little smile stops every little girl and grandma in their tracks. Sometimes, with all these strangers, I chat. Today, it was with a girl who turned out to have recently moved from Canada, and with an Indian couple, who were visiting. Connections are formed. They’re not always lifelong or even tight ones — they’re “loose ties,” informal connections, shuffling around. Sound familiar? It should, because that’s exactly what happened on Twitter.
All that’s probably called a milieu. It’s a complex word, for which there’s no really good proper English analog. It means something like “people who come together and affiliate in a certain way.” Not quite professional, not ultra-personal, but more of an..atmosphere. A kind of there’s-something-in-the-air. This is how we act here, together, and thus this is how we interact.
That’s what used to happen on Twitter, anyways. Back in the early days. Twitter was a good milieu, a place that had never really existed before, where people came together in that rarest of attitudes: good faith.
And then, for some reason, Twitter took a far-too-tolerant approach to hate and abuse and disinformation — and that atmosphere of good faith changed. People acting in bad faith began to pour in — and before you knew it, you were getting abused. But apart from a tiny number on the left, it was usually those on the far right who were harassing everyone else, intimidating them, shouting at them, and you were like, wait, what? Who even is this person?
The milieu on Twitter changed. When I’m in my ancient, famous town square, and I’m walking little Snowy, and people stop and smile and he grins up at them and we chat…the last thing that’ll ever — ever — happen is that…LOL…a Nazi comes up from behind us and starts screaming at us both to die. Maybe you see my point. Twitter’s management, sadly, began to change its own norms, and now hate and abuse weren’t just possible — they were omnipresent.
And yet despite all that, something remarkable happened: people didn’t give up on Twitter. They kind of sighed wearily and learned to shrug off the trolls and bots and fascists and haters…and persevered. Because on the other side was this thing called a global community. And it didn’t really exist elsewhere, in such distilled, raw form. Being part of it was something remarkable, which is why so many people did it every day — they might not have known it, but they were making this global community happen, enacting it.
But the idea that hate and intimidation and slurs and all the rest of it were what the point of all it was came to be championed, by the far right, as “free speech.” Despite the obvious fact that free speech is about the government not censoring, not being able to be a Nazi in a public square, hurling abuse at some poor couple leaning down to pet a cute dog. And the world’s richest man emerged as the leader of this bizarre, fanatical movement, its ideologue-in-chief.
The rest is history. They did what they were always going to do. The point of the far right is control and domination. Particularly, to control the kinds of interactions the rest of us can have. Love that person? Sorry, not allowed. Want to ride in the front of the bus? Sorry, your kind can’t. Your kid says he’s what? Sorry, they can’t be. Understand that, and you understand that this was going to happen from the moment Twitter was acquired — the far right’s purpose is to limit the kinds of relationships and interactions the rest of us can have to the ones they approve of, which are about knowing our place in a hierarchy of hate all-the-way-down-to-subhumanity.
You see why it feels so gross and repulsive now? Twitter was something like our civilization first attempt at a worldwide utility. It definitely wasn’t all-the-way-there. But it was still a major accomplishment, because, well, we don’t have any global utilities, systems, of any kind at all yet. And then the world’s Richest D-Bag came along and killed it. Why? To control the kinds of interactions and relationships the rest of us could have, because, well, he didn’t like them.
Think about that for a second. Here was the first attempt at a global utility — a worldwide community that millions of people built every day, hour, minute, despite the obvious problems that it had, of abuse and hate, of violent bigots and lunatic fascists getting in the way of the simple acts of relationship building and information sharing. And then, when they weren’t getting what they wanted — the lunatics and trolls — the world’s richest man bought it for them. Leaving the rest of everyone else — all those millions who’d joined, built, enacted this global community — to chew on the bitter cud.
Crazy, no? This is where our civilization is. We don’t have a single global utility. Instead, the world’s richest dude bought the only real attempt at one so far…and killed it. LOL. It’s poignant, because it’s so deeply sad, when you think about it that way. Not just because it’s unfair, not just because it’s antipathic, not even just because it reveals that the techno-tycoon’s schtick “saving humanity” as a joke, but because, above all, it’s so painfully stupid. Why would you want to kill a thing like that?
Go ahead. You tell me.