Can We Imagine a Post-Twitter World?
As folks have shared over the past days, Twitter holds a special place in many people's hearts. The magic of Twitter was not just the beauty in the sheer chaos of many parts of the world coming together, but connection with people you never would have been able to meet otherwise.
This has always been the magic of the internet for me. I grew up in a tiny town of just a few thousand people — a tiny world with an even tinier worldview. Yet when I started connecting with people on the internet through sharing website creations on Geocities to chat groups on MSN, AIM, and IRC, I discovered the world was much larger than I ever thought possible.
There were people who shared my interests, new interests to discover, and meaningful connections to be made. I mean, if it hadn’t been for some of those communities I would have never discovered my love for making things on the internet that has taken me to where I am today.
Then Twitter came around. I met my spouse via Twitter, got connections and introductions that landed me jobs on Twitter, and built a network of semi-strangers that always felt like friends to me, even if we have never met in real life.
The early days of Twitter were definitely messy in ways, but they were so special. Then it became more and more popular. Never quite as big as Facebook or Instagram, but wider connections were beginning to form and more and more people were discovering it as a place to share ideas.
By the time 2016 rolled around, it was becoming filled with Nazi sympathizers, right-wing politicians and pundits, and basement trolls and bots who flooded replies with baseless arguments and misinformation that made the site start to feel like a 50/50 shot of either the best or worst place on the internet.
As much as I love Twitter, over the years it's definitely affected my mental health. I've had to take breaks, create strategies for muting and blocking, and be more intentional with who I followed and what topics were helpful for me to engage in or not.
There were many takes on how to solve Twitter, to make it feel more like the Twitter of old, but as folks like Mike Davidson mentioned, there's no cut and dry solution. Twitter is a massive imperfect gray area that is made for everyone and no one at the same time.
In the past 20 years we've seen huge adoption of the internet at large. The pandemic solidified this more than ever. It's no longer a niche sub-community, it is the community. Was Twitter really designed to handle this? Was Twitter meant to actually be the "town square" of the world?
As more people have come online, we're seeing incredible impacts of activism — voices that were no longer silenced and were able to finally bring heinous wrongdoings to light that many never knew of across the world. This has led to (some but not enough) change, but also an awareness that I believe is overall positive for the world, especially in the United States.
In their book, "The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity," Graeber and Wengrow posit that one of the triggers for the understanding of "inequality" that we have today is from critiques of French society by the Wendat leader Kondiaronk that were shared by the writings of Baron Lahontan. This exposure to a new way of thinking about inequality might have also been the turning point led to the French Revolution.
Information is power. That is why disinformation is at its highest point — many people who hold power are terrified by the idea of a connected world.
However, that connection also has its costs. The human brain now has to process more information than it ever has had to. It's honestly remarkable that we're able to do it at all and keep breathing. The mix of social media influencers, pundits, and self-help dealers that share the "right way" to live combined with the amount of atrocities we now hear about on the daily that we have no power to change can often render me borderline comatose, at the very least numb.
This worldwide attention as also made us very disconnected from the real world around us. Local politics get ignored for federal and global, communities of people that live around each other don't even know each other's names, and reported loneliness is at some of its highest recorded in modern history.
I do think we're at an interesting turning point for social media. We've recognized the benefits and the detriments of it and it's possible we've hit a local maximum for what this current iteration could be. Much like an aging band trying to still be relevant who should likely just call it quits at this point (seriously, why is Coldplay still making music).
Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and more were all created and designed at a different time and by people who remember a life pre-internet. While I've benefited deeply from Twitter, for the world we're in today that is more connected digitally and less connected socially than ever, I think we can do better.
If this is the end for Twitter, my hope for the next phase of social connection is something that allows for spread of information, but also the curation of information to be more targeted and impactful. Perhaps this is with smaller groups or even separate platforms that are more focused on specific communities instead of trying to be for everyone and everything.
The current iterations I see with things Discord and Mastodon are really just shadows of worlds we already know. I hope for more for us. I hope for something that doesn't just move the world to a new spot but deepens the connection we have with each other instead of driving us further apart.
I've been lucky enough to make amazing connections to people in my life, online and off, that have made me a better person and changed the trajectory of my life — if that ain't the meaning of life, well then bub I don't know what is. That is what made Twitter great and whatever comes next I hope holds that near to their heart.