As the new year begins, I’m going to pick up where I left off last month, discussing another media platform that is being prematurely written off by the pundits—Twitter.
For years, when I’ve discussed social media in my Business of Film class at Columbia, I have been surprised at how few of my students pay any attention to Twitter. When I quiz them further, it seems that the reason they are not on the platform is that they’ve been scared by what they’ve heard about the toxic environment they are told exists in Twitter. This, of course, was long before the takeover by Elon Musk, which has now created a narrative that is scaring even existing users away.
With Musk allowing some previously banned people back on the platform, and messing around with various ways to increase revenue, fear of Twitter has people predicting its demise and scaring users into abandoning it. Here are some reasons why I think we should all stick it out—and perhaps more controversially, why folks who have never used it should get started now.
To some extent, all the social media networks—even the ones that people think of as somehow safer environments—are susceptible to abuse. The promise of these networks was the way in which they could bring together communities of common interest despite being spread out geographically. At their best, they could be a force for good and help to bring on major social movements like the Arab Spring.
What no one anticipated was that people with fringe opinions, bogus theories and hatred in their hearts, also had an easy way to find each other—giving them a sort of validation that didn’t exist prior. Social media rewards attention, which can incentivize the absolute worst behavior. This kind of behavior is never going away, no matter which platform you are talking about and no matter who owns it. That’s because trying to curb it only leads to a game of whack-a-mole. If you ban people, they pop up elsewhere.
Unlike other platforms, your Twitter feed is completely customizable. You choose who you want to follow and the communities you want to be a part of. You can shield yourself from voices that you have no interest in. There is a great thread (on Twitter) by Tom Nichols, writer for The Atlantic, that gives a step-by-step guide for the settings that allow you to control your feed.
Hi, Twitter liberals, it’s time for us to have a talk. About Twitter. And about you not being insufferable about Twitter. Which many of you have become.
— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) December 13, 2022
The general idea is to find your community of common interests and to follow only those people who have something to offer. Once you have that set, there is no better place than Twitter to get an up-to-the minute snapshot of what is happening in the world, through the lens of people you trust. I follow reputable news outlets on subjects that I care about, including movies, music, technology, and yes, politics, but only from particular sources. These sources lead me to important stores that I can then share with my community. I share my own views on all of these subjects, but rarely have I had to deal with the crazies. It is also worth mentioning that you needn’t tweet at all in order to use Twitter as a source of information. Twitter doesn’t require a handshake (becoming “friends”) in order to participate. You follow who you want to follow and unfollow anyone annoying.
Facebook, Instagram and other platforms do not offer that kind of control. Their algorithms control what is in your feed. If you respond to someone’s vile remark, that person gets elevated in your feed and you now have a connection that you may or may not want. You can’t turn off the algorithm like you can on Twitter. Twitter also has the advantage of showing you information in real time. How much of your Facebook feed is someone commenting on a post that could be days old, weeks old, in some cases, years old? Twitter is up-to-the-minute.
There are so many positive communities that would be lost by leaving or putting an end to Twitter. My indie film community is constantly sharing important information with myriad points of view about a business that is under stress. There has been much written about what is known as “Black Twitter,” an enormous community defined by UVA assistant media studies professor Meredith Clark as “a network of culturally connected communicators using the platform to draw attention to issues of concern to black communities.”
Twitter can be a force for positive change. It’s a powerful bullhorn that can bring attention to important issues and can mobilize action. No other platform has an audience that includes government officials or reporters from traditional and non-traditional media outlets. Do you think you can get these people to “friend” you on Facebook?
Celebrities might want to make some kind of statement by moving to other platforms, but they have the luxury to take their followers with them wherever they go. For those of us who are not celebrities and have built up our own communities over a period of years, starting over would be hugely counterproductive.
Another reason I’ve heard to abandon Twitter is to prevent Elon Musk from making money on it. Don’t make me laugh. Elon Musk is never going to make money on it. If I had to predict what is going to happen, some other company will end up buying Twitter at a very deep discount, and Musk will retreat to trying to save his other companies, all of which are experiencing their own troubles these days.
Most importantly, if sane people abandon Twitter, we will have ceded control of it to the crazies. Giving up on Twitter because toxic discourse exists on the platform is akin to giving up on the web for the same reasons. These folks are everywhere. Have you looked at YouTube? Why give up this powerful tool to the bad guys?
Truth is, Twitter really ought to be a public utility. Musk is correct to call it the town square. And just like a physical town square, there will be loonies shouting into the wind. It is your choice as to who you want to listen to.
Finally, if we want to remove one factor that leads to the kind of toxicity we see on all these platforms, let’s force all social media companies to remove their algorithms. If we could control our feeds on Facebook and on YouTube (like we can on Twitter), without being constantly steered to what some computer algorithm believes will create the most interaction, some of the ease by which the bad folks find each other will have been mitigated.
Anxious to hear your thoughts.