Twitter is dying. Whether that will be the precipitous decline from technical issues piling up, or strangled to death by fleeing ad revenue, or a horrible corruption in the userbase due to a lack of moderation – time will tell. But, to my eyes at least, Twitter is in its last days of relevance if not existence.
We've seen it before. LiveJournal, MySpace, Tumblr, BBSes, forums, Google+, AIM. Social media networks come and go (and sometimes come back again and again). They leave disruption in their wake. Panic, fear, upset. Lost content. Lost friends. Lost business.
We rely on these networks for so many things. I've been on Twitter as my main platform since 2007. 15 years. I've been in publishing since 2005. My whole career, basically, was built on, around, and through that site. I made friends there with writers, editors, agents. I would sign book projects from people I met there when I was an editor. I'd arrange meetings, coffee dates, lunches, barcon hangs with anyone and everyone. As an agent it was invaluable. I had a platform, a place I could speak about my discontents with the business, with the world. And a place where I could celebrate the wins, revel in a dumb joke, hang out with friends. People knew my name and would come up to me at events, at cons, and say "hey, I follow you on Twitter" and we had something to talk about.
Nothing has ever been as funny to me as Twitter on a day where a scandal breaks, a celebrity does something wild. Nothing has been as much of an education to me as seeing communities in crisis. I've learned so much about oppression, resistance, justice there. It's shaped my views on race, the carceral state, sex work, housing, internet privacy, healthcare. It has been a classroom, a watercooler, a meeting house, a dark pit to hold our frustration and rage and grief.
And it was special. The flatness of Twitter, the linearity, the brevity of it. It was a place where everyone gathered – the internet's watering hole. We all came there for news, for jokes, for community. I'd read conversations between sex workers and academics. Between fascists and politicians. Between writers and critics. Things would spiral out into a fever pitch, and then calm down. There was a tidal pull to Twitter – the main character of the day, the election cycle, the awards cycle.
But the timeline was an equalizer. The forward march of time would push the feeding frenzy to the back burner. The news would fade, the attention would shift. One post after another would keep the flow moving forward, into new territories and new crises.
And then, the algorithm came and broke the internet. Moving away from the rigid linearity, the commitment to the brutal reality of time passing, meant we lost control of the medium. It meant virality, controversy, sensationalism was given precedence over experience, over discourse.
I think this was inevitable. Twitter is a corporation – a technology in search of a business model. A product desperate for a customer. And they decided the customer was advertisers, they decided the metric was activity. You get what you measure and what they measured was interaction. Not quality, not discourse, not safety. And so the tone shifted. The watering hole got dammed up. Parts of it were licensed for private use, for exploitation. We were shuffled around, corralled, penned up.
I'm working through a line of thought, a feeling and an instinct. Not an original one but not one I've fully internalized or understood yet. But the way that a need to profit runs counter to the value of the internet. A need for money broke Twitter, long before the billionaire decided to do... whatever it is he's doing with it. Twitter has been aging, I think, into obsolescence for a very long time. Because the internet is evolving and shifting away from what it once was.
And there's no replacement for it. The thing that made it special is unlikely to be replicable because Twitter was a product of a different internet. Of a different world where virality wasn't monetized, wasn't exploited and chased the way it is now. I'm not making a value judgment here – I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with influencers, with celebrity, with exposure and access being the coin of the day. It's complicated and there are consequences, but I think that was true of an earlier era of the internet too.
The world isn't worse without Twitter. It's not better either, I don't think. I'm sad and I've been grieving the loss of this thing that I loved. But also I think this has forced me to confront the feeling that the thing that I loved has been gone for a very long time. I've been tap dancing inside its hollowed out corpse and, frankly, will probably continue to do so until the lights turn off or the toxic sludge drowns us all out.
Twitter was never great at selling books, I don't think. It was great at building a career though. At finding opportunities and making friends. It was a place to meet people and bond across all lines of distinction – class, location, industry. And that was special. It was good for writers and I think it was good for writing.
I have an instinct, but no evidence, that it was never very good at promotion though. Maybe it was good at creating buzz among a certain group of readers, tastemakers, bigmouths, influencers – pick your term based on when you started working in the business. But it was terrible for reaching readers and influencing their buying decisions. I've seen bestseller after bestseller steamroll the genre without a whisper of it in the discourse. The biggest authors are barely discussed – or maybe they were just outside of my line of sight.
Because the feeling of universality on Twitter was also an illusion. Yes, it was a shared watering hole but it was also a crowd, a mob, a herd with an infinite amount of sub groups, of communities. I had tens of thousands of people ostensibly subscribed to hear from me. But I interacted with a handful, a couple hundred maybe with any regularity. That is a vanishingly small sample size to understand culture at large.
Twitter ran on the logic of as above, so below. As the discourse of this tranche of readers, of creators, of critics went, so went the reading public. So went the audience, the publishers, the booksellers. And in practice I never found that to be true.
Increasingly I don't know what sells books online. I don't know what's working. TikTok, sure, if you're good at it and get that much coveted virality. Instagram is probably the safest bet. Mastodon? I don't know, maybe good for community, for networking within your group. Hive, Post, Co-Host – all of them have ups and downs.
But selling books is hard. Reaching audiences is hard. Publicity is hard. How do you build awareness in a world where everything is available but nothing is consistent?
My instinct, my hope, is that something will emerge. As Twitter fails, something else will emerge to take its place in the culture. It won't be the same. It won't replicate the features, the feeling, the alluring potential of Twitter. But nature, and the internet, abhors a vacuum. Something will fill it and hopefully we'll figure out a way to sell books on it.
Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe in 15 years we'll all still be using the hellsite, grousing about how it's not as good as it was, that it's toxic now, that it's bad for the community. Maybe I'll still be getting threats in my dms and worried about my friends and my clients everytime something pops off. And maybe I'll still be making dumb jokes about movies and videogames. Maybe I'll still be getting mad about the industry.
I hope not, frankly. I want us to evolve past needing Twitter. I want us to find new ways to interact. I'm afraid of what that future is, sure. I can envision many awful outcomes to what comes next. But I hope there's something exciting there too. I hope there's opportunity there and space for growth. And I hope we can take some hard won lessons, some guidance rooted in our former lives, and build something better, stronger, safer.
I hope I get to see you all there.