As we watch what’s happening at Twitter – billionaire owner burning place to ground, employees leaving in revolt, users mourning their lost world and setting up accounts elsewhere, #RIPTwitter and related hashtags dominating their trending topics – it’s helpful, perhaps, to ask the question “what IS the Twitter that is dying?”
In his already infamous email to employees, Musk wrote “At its heart, Twitter is a software and servers company.” Others have been quick to note how very wrong that is. How wrong?
In our book Twitter: A Biography, Jean Burgess and I argued that platforms are not simply “the ‘back-end’ technical architecture” but “the relations among a number of elements” including those software and servers that Musk thinks constitute the heart of the platform, but much much more:
The frontstage user interface and features that people who use a platform encounter are crucial. Yet Musk thinks of this as window dressing at best.
There is also the ecosystem of devices and services in which a platform is situated and connected. That would include the services shut down last week, breaking two factor authentication, the advertising networks that are fleeing, and the connections between Twitter and other accounts and devices that people are urgently deleting. It also includes the alternative platforms to which even the most faithful of tweeters like myself have decamped. As I write, also trending on Twitter are: Insta, Mastodon, Discord and even MySpace and Tumblr.
A platform is also the communicative or expressive content – and here Twitter truly excelled. Even as it burned, it’s never been funnier. “Are we really gonna tweet through the end of Twitter?” asked one tweeter. “This is a good dry run for the end of the world” joked another. The norms and understandings of these practices have never been well aligned, which has caused untold conflict on Twitter, and in many ways that conflict has also been the heart of what made Twitter Twitter.
The business model of Twitter Inc. is another important element, one which appears to no longer exist. This would include the employees, for whom my heart breaks.
And finally, platforms include the “public discourse and media representation about the platform.” While that once focused on how important it’s been to social movements like the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter or how dangerous it might be for democracy, it’s now uniformly focused on the debacle that is Musk’s ownership.
Even if the software and servers thrive, which is difficult to imagine when so many of its maintainers (ah, the importance of maintenance – never sexy but always everything) are gone, the rest is already irreparably harmed. Whatever the site becomes from here – and whether it continues to exist is very much an open question as I write – it will not be Twitter. It will be a new platform with the same name.
I have so much to be grateful for about Twitter. Like the time I was joking in 2009 that I was going to start spelling Baym in all caps with two exclamation points and people started responding that they looked forward to publications from BAYM!! and boyd making copyeditors crazy. Later that day, danah invited me to visit Microsoft Research. And that’s how I landed a dream job I never knew I wanted. Twitter’s tenor certainly changed, as Jean and I describe in depth, from a place that foregrounded personal connection to one that foregrounded information distribution, and one that foregrounded social logics to one that foregrounded media logics. It’s been tragic all along, but never more so than these last few weeks. There is so much to mourn and so much to be done to create a more just internet where the whims of billionaires don’t determine the fate of our social worlds.
What will I keep of Twitter? The friends I made along the way. See you on Mastodon.