For a few days in early November, it seemed like Twitter might go down in flames. That hasn’t happened—yet—but the prospect of the platform’s end has forced a reckoning. What would its loss mean for the countless journalists, academics, and politicians who rely on it? Would we be better or worse off? And could a diminished Twitter augur the death of social media in general? On episode 58 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene talk with the writer Max Read about Twitter’s possible futures, and with Ian Bogost, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, about why we should embrace the end of social media.
Alex Pareene: In 2019, the Twitter user @MapleCocaine posted one of the best observations about the culture and
tendencies of that platform. “Each day on twitter,” Mr. Cocaine wrote, “There
is one main character. The goal is never to be it.”
Laura Marsh: Depending on your familiarity with the platform, you may remember “Bean Dad,” who boasted of refusing to open a can of beans for his nine-year-old daughter, or the user whose simple question for gun control activists was how they expected him to protect his children from “30 to 50 feral hogs” running wild in his yard.
Alex: Since the end of October, the main character on Twitter most days has become Twitter—or, more specifically, its new owner, the needy, impulsive billionaire, Elon Musk. Since acquiring the platform, Musk has thrown it into chaos, both internal and external, with seemingly improvised new moderation policies, mass layoffs, and flailing attempts to boost revenue.
Laura: Musk’s leadership has been so disruptive that many of Twitter’s most devoted users have started wondering whether the site can survive and whether they want to keep posting if it does.
Alex: This week, we’re asking what it looks like for a platform to die, what that death would mean for people in industries that have come to rely on it, and whether we might all be better off—or at least less miserable—in a world without internet-wide main characters. I’m Alex Pareene.
Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh.
Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.
Alex: Within days of Elon Musk taking control of Twitter, people were speculating about how it all might come crashing down. Even if it didn’t break immediately, which did seem a thrilling possibility that first weekend, some break or ending still seemed inevitable. We’re talking now with Max Read, who wrote a post on his Substack newsletter laying out four possible futures for the social media network. Max, thank you for joining us.
Max Read: Thanks for having me.
Alex: In your newsletter about the future of Twitter, you separated Twitter as a business from Twitter as a platform, and you propose a sort of matrix of possibilities: Twitter the business survives, but Twitter the platform, doesn’t; the business fails, but somehow the platform survives; or they both fail; or they both survive. How do you distinguish those two—the platform and the business—and why is it important to distinguish them in your mind?
Max: To me, the difference is important to make because Twitter has never really been a successful business. It has made profits only ever intermittently. It’s legendary for the decade-plus of mismanagement it was under before Elon Musk. Yet at the same time, it also has been this astonishingly successful cultural space. If you’re not on Twitter, you almost certainly have heard of it. It’s a platform where elite figures in all these different fields congregate, where they pass ideas around, where you can actually get the attention of some very important and famous people. In that sense, there’s always been this disjunction between the business and the platform and its existence as this news generation machine. When we talk about what’s going to happen under Musk, we’re thinking about those two different tracks because Musk coming in and changing the way Twitter verification works obviously makes a huge difference in how the culture of the platform arises. But it may or may not be good for the business.
Alex: That’s absolutely one of the funniest things about Twitter. I saw this line circulating a while ago. You have a space where you have Stephen King writing for you for free, the most successful living fiction author in the world, is like, “I will contribute to this for free.” You get this idea of “How can you not make that work exactly?” But as we’ve seen, it’s harder than it sounds. Speaking of the failure states, we should walk through what you lined up as the four futures, if you will, of Twitter.
Max: We can talk about the obvious scenarios. One is that both the platform and the business survive into the future, and to me, this is maybe what you might have expected in the spring—that Elon Musk would take over Twitter, that he would tweak it to whatever weird specifications he has, but he would manage to keep it more or less the same and it would survive in the way that it has in the past. The other option, diametrically opposed to that one, is that both the business and the platform fail. That has been the direction it feels like it’s been going the last couple weeks, where not only is Musk chasing off advertisers, firing something like three-quarters of the entire Twitter staff, but also everybody on the platform is talking about how bad it is now, how much they want to leave. In my head, this looks like six months from now, a year from now, the only thing that’s left of Twitter is Elon Musk, David Sacks, his VC, his right-hand man, sitting in a room drinking R.C. Cola and trying to ban the very last poster, who’s imitating Stephen King. When they finally do that, that’s it, that’s the end of it.
Alex: I feel like I’ve been in that room, not at Twitter, but I feel like I’ve been in that room before.
Max: You can smell it, can’t you?
Alex: Yeah. What are the other two scenarios you envision?
Max: These both seem a little more interesting but also a little more likely to me. One is the idea that it’s possible that Musk could turn the business around while also killing the platform as we’ve known it. There’s a school of thought that says that the way Twitter is and what makes it such a generative space is also what makes it a difficult place to sell advertisements on, for example—that having this freewheeling free-for-all featuring meth addicts and superstar quarterbacks and the president of the United States all on the same website, all being weirdly horny for some reason, turns it into a space that maybe big brand advertisers would rather stay away from. You could see a scenario where Elon Musk, or maybe somebody who was a little bit less strange, managed to straighten the platform out and turn it into something a little more like one of the big successful platforms, like a YouTube or a Facebook. So that scenario is the business survives but the platform dies.
Alex: So what’s your last scenario, basically the opposite of that one?
Max: To me the slightly darker inverse of that is a situation where the platform survives but the business doesn’t, where all the people and processes and ideas and memes that have made Twitter such an important platform for the media and entertainment and politics, all that stuff stays on the platform, more or less the same, but Musk just can’t make it work. He scares off too many advertisers. He fires too many people. The business goes into bankruptcy, in which case he’s going to have to find a willing buyer to take it over or somebody is going to have to buy it. For me, it’s like, “Who wants this big broken platform where you have access to a lot of very important people in politics, in the media, but you’ll never make any money?” My guess is the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia would really like that.
Alex: Obviously we’re in a too-soon-to-tell holding pattern, but where do you think we’re trending right now?
Max: My instinct in situations like this is always
to avoid catastrophism,
but pretty much every day, Elon Musk has woken up and done something stupider and worse than the day before. I keep waiting for there to be a turning point, a turnaround point, but he really has lost three-quarters or more of the staff of Twitter. There’s a truism in Silicon Valley that every big platform is overstaffed and bloated and that may or may not be true on some abstract level, but when you’re talking about a platform that’s serving billions of visitors, hundreds of millions of users in the middle of, say, a World Cup, it’s actually hard to know who are the people who are actually doing their jobs and who aren’t, and who is a guy who maybe isn’t really doing anything at all but he’s the only guy who has all the knowledge about how to make sure the site stay running. A really bad way to find all that out is to just fire everybody and see what breaks and when it breaks—which is kind of what he’s been doing.
Alex: We’ve already heard stories that after the mass layoffs, they were almost immediately saying, essentially, “You were accidentally let go and we need you to actually come back and run this critical thing.” I think it’s been heavily implied that when he did his memo about, “Click yes to continue working for Twitter”—the mass email that was like, “If you want to work all day and all night and weekends for me, please reply yes”—that he and his circle were surprised at how few people replied yes.
Laura: When this all happened, when Musk came on, there’s an appeal to believing that just purely on technical grounds, the whole thing is going to implode. There’s a parallel with the argument that capitalism can’t sustain itself, it will evaporate because of its own internal contradictions. But there is this other track, which is just the slow waning of the culture on the platform, and I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about what you see, or foresee, there.
Max: My sense, just based on my own anecdotal experience and people in my communities and friend groups, is that Twitter was losing some of the—I’m not quite sure what the right phrase is—that Twitter was no longer quite as essential in 2021 or 2022 as it had been or as it felt five or six years earlier. I can speak for myself in particular. There was a time a few years ago when it just sort of became clear that there were diminishing returns to giving so much of your career and your life to a platform that just really wasn’t compensating you for it and frankly was just making you angry all the time for no reason. And so I think there has been something of a trend that Twitter has been diminished in some ways, its importance has been diminished in some ways, for people. I think that’s probably also true of industries like politics, entertainment, other industries that have similarly kind of strange, difficult, vexed relationships with Twitter. You see more and more people talking about joining group chats, private group chats or semiprivate group chats on apps like Discord than they do on Twitter. I think that, if anything, Elon Musk is accelerating that process, that it’s less like it was a paradise and then everybody started leaving; it seems more to me like there were a lot of people who were having trouble justifying the amount of time they were spending or the amount of content they were giving to the site and now that it works worse and is owned by a guy who sucks, maybe we don’t want to spend that much time on here at all. All this being said, the difficulty with quitting Twitter is once you’ve given so much of yourself or your career or your personal brand, it’s very difficult to walk away. I do think inertia is very much on Elon Musk’s and Twitter’s side here. There isn’t really like an alternative where you can immediately port over what you’ve built up over the years.
Laura: Well, it’s the lack of an alternative that seems like the almost unique aspect of this situation. Because we’re all around the same age, and I’m sure—I know I went through a MySpace phase in high school, and then I was on Facebook.... I don’t use either of those platforms anymore, but there was no moment of quitting. It was just the MySpace account withered and died, having been the center of my life for two years or something. It wasn’t like I decided to leave. There was something better. But with Twitter being in this state, there isn’t really something that’s luring you away from it that makes it seem worth leaving the stuff that you’ve got over there.
Max: Yeah. It’s actually an interesting thought exercise, partly because I think it reveals, just from a product design point of view, what has made Twitter such a force for people who write for a living. Because you can start a Substack, as I have, and that can be a way to reach readers; and you can read the newspaper if you want to get news. There are all these different functions of Twitter that you can disaggregate. You can call your friends if you want to talk to them. You can join a group chat if you want to gossip. But having a single place where you can do all of these things, maybe not as well as you can do them anywhere else, but you can do them at this semicentralized location, any time of day, where you can make yourself so mad at somebody you’ve never met for no reason—two in the morning, two in the afternoon, whenever you want to do that, it’s there for you. My God, it’s going to be very difficult to replace it.
Alex: It’s funny, when I see all of the alternatives people are trying to propose—“Let’s all move to this one,” be it Mastodon, be it Post—you notice this thing in all of them that are proposed as a Twitter alternative or a Twitter replacement, is that they’re always trying to cure whatever the people behind it see as their problem with the platform. And quite often the thing the platform they’re trying to cure is actually the secret sauce that made it perpetuate itself like this.
Alex: You’ll see it in Post, where in the Post terms of service, it’s like, “We will have a civil discussion and you are not allowed to criticize someone because of their net worth.” Even Mastodon is meant to be this place where the ill they’re curing is the incivility, the lack of reasoned and intelligent and compassionate discussion on Twitter. It just makes you think, “Do they actually know why all of us were logging into Twitter for so many years?” No, I want to read a guy I’ve never met tell the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist that he’s going to put him in a diaper. That’s what I want to see.
Max: What Twitter had at its core was the same promise that a lot of us still hold onto around the internet, which is the sort of democratizing idea of it. Twitter was only maybe ever a limited and shallow democratizing influence on a bunch of industries and people, but it did the thing that every great social wave of the internet has done, which is that it found all these incredibly intelligent, funny, strange, interesting people all across the country and it gave them a way to voice those qualities. In practice, it often was really awful and still is awful and silly and terrifying but that contradiction is important to the being of Twitter, and, as you say, the Mastodon alternative of a thousand petty fiefdoms, where you can be scolded from one direction or another, or banned, or thrown off and all of your DMs are going to be read by your feudal Mastodon lord—that seems to me to totally miss the appeal of centralization, the appeal of just entering the slipstream with 100,000 other freaks to see what there is on the internet today. I can’t believe you guys have cornered me into defending Twitter as a public square.
Alex: Little did you know when we invited you here....
Max: I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m listening to the words coming out of my mouth. I can’t—I’m shocked with myself.
Laura: It does feel like we’ve all talked ourselves back into this idealistic 2011/2012 kind of moment.
Alex: All right. I just wanted to do one more goofy wrap up question. You were speaking about what kept journalists glued to the platform of Twitter for so long, even if they stopped enjoying it. You pointed out that, at a certain point, if you’d built your reputation on the platform for a while, it became a currency for you, especially if you had developed a following—not just for your own ego gratification, but it was sort of important to your career. I was wondering, because you spoke about that so eloquently, do you have any personal experience with what it would be like, for example, to have lost your Twitter following, Max?
Max: As somebody with a Substack, why would I ever want a Twitter? Who needs Twitter? Who needs something like that? The one thing I will say to any listeners who have, say, 50,000 followers and decide they want to take a break from Twitter for a while, if you delete your account and then you don’t reactivate it in 30 days, Twitter just deletes that whole thing. They just nuke it so you will never ever get it back. Then let’s say you have projects you want to promote or whatever, just randomly, hypothetically—
Alex: Let’s say maybe you start a newsletter a while later.
Alex: So we may have tricked Max Read into offering a eulogy for Twitter.
Laura: After the break, we’ll be back to talk to Ian Bogost about why we should welcome the end of social media.
Laura: Twitter’s troubles, of course, predate Elon Musk buying the platform. Twitter has drawn criticism for years for rampant harassment on the platform, the strange way it seems to escalate differences of opinion into blazing fights, its amplification of the issues only people on Twitter care about, and its distorting effects on our attention spans. We’re joined now by Ian Bogost, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and Professor of Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He sees an opportunity in the possible disintegration of social media. He’s written that any form that lets you say anything to anyone else as often as possible was “a terrible idea from the outset.”
Ian, thanks for coming on the show.
Ian Bogost: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Laura: You wrote an article for The Atlantic about the end of social media in which you argue that the demise of platforms like Facebook and Twitter is something to be welcomed as much as mourned. Your article tracks this shift in the history of social networking from what you call a social network to social media. What’s the difference between the two?
Ian: It’s really from social networking software to social media, because we’ve had social networks forever, as long as we’ve been social beings, which is as long as we’ve been humans. Those networks have often been constrained by geography, by community, by family. Then we got connected to one another on the internet in large scale, and as a part of that process, folks started inventing software to facilitate social networking. We’re familiar with Facebook as maybe the first global-scale example of that, but there were a lot of them before then—a product called SixDegrees in the late ’90s, and then there was Friendster and MySpace. But the thing that all of them did, especially in the early days, was they allowed ordinary people to deepen and discover connections with people they already kind of knew. I think when we think about that moment, from ’95, ’97, to 2009, 2010, it is entirely different from the internet we’ve been living in since 2010, which is all about broadcasting, about being as public as possible with every idea in your head so that you can get attention around it, which is, of course, what the companies that make these services want, too.
Laura: When I was reading your piece, when you make that distinction, I was thinking about how back when you had a MySpace account, you had a little panel of your curated friends and you would pin, I think it was 12 people who were your top friends. The whole focus of that platform was on who are your friends.
Laura: Whereas on Twitter, when you think about the equivalent, it’s your pinned tweet. That’s a completely different idea. It’s like, here’s the top thing that I said. That’s the broadcast idea rather than the “all the friends are here” idea.
Ian: Instagram is the first service that I think deserves the name social network. But Twitter was one of the first services to do what you’re describing, to be a place where you went in order to broadcast. YouTube was another, but YouTube felt very different, or Flickr, for photos, but those services didn’t have this celebrity or professionalized implication around them at the time, and that was one of the things that made Twitter so shockingly intriguing in 2007 or so when it was new—that you could see what just anyone in the world who was on the service was saying, which was mostly just kind of nothing.
Laura: The fact that it was so focused on broadcasting made it very awkward for a lot of people to adopt. I got my account in 2010 and didn’t use it at all until 2015. Why do you think that shift ultimately caught on?
Ian: Because we’re narcissists! It’s delightful to think that the world cares about what you think about anything whatsoever, and that is just too tempting an invitation to turn down.
Alex: I think you can look at Twitter and other modern platforms, Reddit especially, as the next evolution from forums and message boards, where it wouldn’t have been people, you would’ve known IRL, but it felt like fulfilling this promise of the internet of bringing global connection between people for whom the thing they had in common was maybe a shared interest in something, a shared hobby. It did create this connection between people that felt like what Facebook, what Mark Zuckerberg, has been promising for years: Bring the world together, connect the world. But even though these message boards and forums were public in a sense, there wasn’t that broadcasting element.
Ian: You’re right to point out these other influences that have been around for a long time. Even with Twitter or with MySpace, with your pinned friends, we had blogs, and you had your blog with all the people you were following, and maybe nobody was reading it, but those are the folks you considered to be your kin, your kindred, and homepages before that had something like this. But I think what’s interesting about all those is that we can see the positive and negative valences of those communities from the very get-go. These days, Twitter, for example—maybe the whole internet—feels a lot more of the way that Usenet felt to me in the early ’90s, just a bunch of jerks screaming at each other, and that was always there too. Message boards or MMOs, massively multiplayer games, EverQuest or whatever, where you’d meet people you didn’t necessarily know beforehand—those communities were not IRL communities necessarily, but they were real communities. You were getting together with people to play the same game, or because you both worked on cars or did knitting. They were networks of activity whose purpose exceeded the use of the software itself, and that’s the thing that changed.
Laura: That’s an interesting definition of a real network, and it makes me wonder how you define whatever Twitter is.
Ian: Twitter is a chat room for the world. That’s how I would define Twitter.
Laura: And what are the main problems with that?
Ian: All the bad things come out of the good things, so it’s worth acknowledging what the good things are, what draws people to these things: the ability to be constrained in your speech, the character limit, the short size of those messages that you can send on Twitter, makes it much easier to say something than to write a blog post or even a Facebook post. It reduces all that friction of having a fully formed argument—which, of course, has obvious downsides, because you don’t want everyone just going, “Hey, here’s the thing I’m thinking right this second,” and it seems definitive. But then also Twitter was the first place where you got global—or at least potentially global—reach and spread. The idea of this feed of constant information where you can see what anyone says and you can speak to potentially anyone who’s going to see it—there was even a public feed on Twitter in the early days where literally everything that got posted was visible—that became so tempting, so powerful, that it led eventually to the retweet, which that had to be invented and implemented by the software company. Before that, we were copying and reposting posts.
Alex: You would copy and then you would type “RT.”
Ian: Exactly, and when the retweet button was invented, the instantaneous spread, the viral spread of messages for good and ill, the power of that instant spreadability became clear, and that’s of course something that everybody else has adopted. So that capacity for instant and widespread sharing really was invented at and by Twitter.
Laura: You have this really interesting idea that you wrote about in The Atlantic that’s basically an anthropological point: that humans are just not used to talking to this many people. It’s an experience that only a very few people, only very famous people, have had in human history.
Laura: And many of them don’t handle it well, as we can tell from looking at the biographies of very famous people who struggle with fame. Then suddenly anyone could have that experience, including people who weren’t looking for it, like small follower accounts that suddenly get retweeted to millions of views for saying something stupid and are suddenly dealing with the fact that everyone knows their name, or at least their handle, and they know this one fact about this person.
Ian: People resist this idea for a couple reasons, this idea that there’s something unnatural about being able to reach the number of people that we can speak to as quickly as we can. There’s a concept, it’s somewhat controversial, the idea of Dunbar’s number, which is the number of people with whom you can have deep close relationships is actually very small, like a handful, and then as you work out from it, it becomes harder and harder to maintain the clarity and realness of those connections and eventually you just dump off into the world of acquaintance, or strangerness. Whether you adopt that specific approach to social behavior or not, I think we have to admit this is historically recent. We have just never in human history had the capacity for any individual on the planet with a phone or a computer to reach billions, at least like two, three, four billion people. That’s just an utterly novel notion that is maybe 10 years old or so, and it’s no surprise that we would have a hard time dealing with it collectively, in the same way that individual celebrities have had a hard time dealing with fame on their own.
Laura: Do you think that the demise of Twitter, whether it’s the company actually imploding, or just people using it less because it’s less pleasurable and less easy to use, do you think that will alleviate some of these problems?
Ian: I guess the thought I have about the benefit of one or more of these social services failing or even just falling into disrepair is that it would show us, “OK, maybe there is an off-ramp, maybe there is an alternative.” We’re long overdue for some kind of change to show that that novelty is still possible.
Alex: I think it is important to make it clear, as you do, to remind people, that this is neither natural nor inevitable. These platforms, these companies, these forms of communication, were built intentionally. And again, when Mark Zuckerberg says “Our goal is to connect the entire world,” that’s not a value-neutral thing, and it’s also like, you have to ask why—not only is it not a value-neutral thing, but why is that a positive good?
Ian: Most people don’t really want to be connected to the number of people they’re connected to, and you know this instantly when you get connected to even a small fraction of all those people and see and feel the consequences of doing so. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, like please, just leave me alone.” Anything that involves downscaling is good in my book, even if you just couldn’t post that much. I can only post 280 characters on Twitter, but I can post it at that number of characters as many times a day as I want.
Alex: You can have an infinitely long thread.
Ian: Right, and it’s impossible in the current business models of these companies to imagine them voluntarily choosing to reduce the amount that I can post because engagement is what their businesses are built on. But if I knew that I can say one thing a day or a week, that would make a difference.
Laura: But remember there was this site, this.com, I think it was called.
Ian: Yeah, I remember that one.
Laura: The whole concept was that you would post one thing a day—and it folded pretty quickly.
Ian: Yeah, exactly, because it couldn’t exist.
Laura: I think one reason is that the audience is like, “Oh well, when I log on to Twitter, I expect to see a slew of crap and then I select the three or four things that I can give some attention to from it.”
Ian: No, totally.
Laura: And I’m so used to going, “No, no, no, no, no, no. OK, yeah, maybe that.”
Ian: The thing about habits is that once we develop them, whether they’re positive or negative, it’s very hard to give them up, because they are what we do. But there have been lots of moments, even within the social media ecosystem, when those patterns of behavior have changed. Remember back in the early days of this period, which, again, I’ve identified as starting in 2010, we got all those social gaming apps. You got, like, Farmville, and people got really pissed off about all the Farmville spam on their Facebook feeds, and that created a need on Facebook’s part to suppress those messages and say “Enough of this stuff.” They say they did the same thing with hate speech, which they didn’t because it turned out that the engagement numbers around awful things that people say were good, whereas the engagement around the Farmville posts was poor.
Alex: It’s almost like the difference between a well-designed game and gambling.
Laura: That’s a very, very good comparison.
Alex: In terms of how you engage with it and because gambling is addictive and operates in many of the same pleasure centers of the brain.
Laura: And kind of contentless, right?
Ian: It is, yeah.
Laura: It doesn’t matter what you’re betting on, you don’t play cards because you love the specific game.
Ian: Yeah, no, that’s dead on. Some of the very first worries about computer games back in the ’70s and ’80s were that they were a little bit too much like slot machines with this partial reinforcement and then you were literally dropping coins into them at the time, which also helped with the comparison. But that danger of the partial reinforcement return and just refreshing the feed because something will be new and then you’ll get a little hit of dopamine as you discover the novelty, that structure has been completely ingrained and it will be really hard to give up for that reason, if we can even decide that we want to give it up collectively.
Laura: So I don’t take you to be saying any of this, that social networking or social media is inherently bad. I think that you think there is, there could be a good version of it and you mentioned downscaling as a feature that some of these networks. What would a more stripped-down, functional, less toxic social world look like?
Ian: Anything that reduces the number of people, the frequency, the spreadability, anything with brakes or with friction is good. The problem is those services, they look like art objects or like curiosities so long as we have all the rest of them. It’s almost like if social media is the cigarette, then these alternatives are like candy cigs or nicotine gum or something. They’re just bad alternatives to the delivery mechanism that we’ve become acclimated to. So even as I think we need to give ourselves a familiarity with a reduced audience and a reduced volume of social messages, I also think that it will be almost impossible for them to succeed so long as the upscaled versions persist. The tech companies that run these are so wealthy and powerful, even after losing giant portions of their market value this year in stock collapses, they still have so much cash and so much value that they’re not just going to lay down and let it happen. I’m not really answering your question because I don’t think there is a good, simple answer, and I don’t want your listeners to hear someone come on here and say, “Oh, we just need app wizoo to replace the last one.”
Alex: Or we need individuals to be more virtuous themselves.
Ian: Right, that’s not going to work either, and we need to give up on that idea forever.
Alex: So anyway, there’s no hope! Thank you, Ian.
Alex: The Politics of Everything is co-produced by Talkhouse.
Laura: Emily Cooke is our executive producer.
Alex: Myron Kaplan is our audio editor.
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Alex: Thanks for listening.